Being undefeated is difficult to do regardless of the sport. In particular, basketball has so many layers to one team, let alone an entire conference or league. A natural spectacle is created around the team, and fans want to see how long they can keep winning or what team will hand them their first loss. The South Carolina Lady Gamecocks have been exceptional this season, and they have captivated the world with their amazing performances.
Led by Hall of Fame Head Coach Dawn Staley (STALE-EA), her loving personality and knowledge of the game has a powerful impact on her players. In 2008, Staley left the Temple Owls after amassing a 172-80 record over the course of eight seasons, and became the best coach in the program’s history during her tenure.
In 2017, Staley helped the South Carolina women's basketball team win their first NCAA Championship in the program's history. This prompted the administration to make sure Staley never leaves. They decided to go all-in and offered Staley a historic 7-year contract extension with a payout of $22.4 million. She happily accepted the offer, and the girls got right back to work.
During the 2021-2022 season, Staley led them to a 35-2 record, and they won the 2022 NCAA championship as well. Last season they finished 36-1, but the Gamecocks fell short of their title defense. Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes defeated the Gamecocks in the Final Four to advance to the NCAA Championship.
Even though the Gamecocks came up short, they still remain dominant this season. Their success is not a product of an easy schedule, but they've dominated the competition thus far with a 22-0 record this season. Their most notable win so far this season is the six-point victory over the defending champion LSU Tigers. They handed them their first loss in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and Staley was super proud of her girls for getting the victory. "Our game has been held back and now I don’t know if it's the new television package or the negotiations, I don't know what it is, but I think what we are witnessing is something truly special," Staley said "I mean I’ve never seen this many people present for a regular season game, and the energy that was in this building was great."
The Gamecocks team identity is based on their defense and ball movement on offense. five out of the 11 girls are averaging double figures instead of one superstar player averaging 20+. It’s a really good system for their personnel due to their specialties. Kamila Cardoso is considered their ‘star’ because she leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Cardoso averages 13.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.1 AST, and 2.9 BPG this season.
Her defense is the backbone of the team, and she is one of the tallest centers in Women’s College Basketball at 6’7. Her long wingspan also results in good shot contests as well. She can move surprisingly well for her size, posing as a double-double machine. Her shot IQ is also a huge positive as she shoots 61.4% from the field.
Cardoso declared for the 2024 WNBA draft and is currently a top 5 pick in multiple mock drafts. Picks three through five are held by the Phoenix Mercury, L.A. Sparks, and Dallas Wings. Her star ability and paint presence is already evident, and any of these teams would love to have someone like Cardoso. When she leaves, her presence on and off the court will be missed by the entire administration. She helped the new transfer, Te-Hina Paopao, have a smooth transition from the University of Oregon welcoming her with open arms.
In her fourth season of college basketball, she is shooting at an extremely high 48.5% from three. Paopao is averaging 11.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.9 APG, and she has 48.9/48.5/82.6% shooting splits. She has been impressive in her time as a Duck, but this season she is proving to be the best transfer in the nation, and a true testament to the mastery of coach Staley.
She performs the best when she isn't the primary ball handler, with her ability to run off the ball and making catch-and-shoot threes. The former McDonald’s All-American made the All PAC-12 First Team twice during her tenure at Oregon and they leaned on her a lot for their offensive production. Across her 77-game tenure, she scored double-digit figures in 51 games. At South Carolina, her chances of winning the NCAA title are higher than ever. It was announced that Cardoso and Paopao are on the Wooden Award Watchlist due to their success on the court. With their great chemistry on the court, they compliment each others games well which makes it fun for fans everywhere.
The Gamecocks tactician, Raven Johnson, leads the team in assists and steals this season, showing her two-way ability is as elite as the team's record. She is currently averaging 9.1 PPG, 4.3 APG, 5.2 RPG and 2.3 steals. She clogs the passing lanes on defense with the best of them, and her playmaking prowess is the beating heart of South Carolina. As the point guard, she has a major responsibility because Staley has high expectations. The ability to feed all her teammates while avoiding turning it over is imperative, and she currently averages 1.6 TO per game. In her sophomore year, Johnson became a leader in the locker room and her experience is valued amongst her teammates.
The Gamecocks shoot 51.4% from the field as a team and the plays Staley utilizes are always high percentage shots. They also shoot 40.9% from three, and four of the players shoot over 40%. This includes bonafide sharpshooter, Chloe Kitts, who shoots 53.4% from the field. The sophomore forward is averaging 9.6 points, 6.2 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game.
Even though Johnson is the best defensive guard on the team, the entire team has exceptional perimeter defense. Their trust in each other gives them the ability to switch on matchups at a moment's notice.
Back-up center, Sophomore Ashlyn Watkins, averages 8.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game. To have another defensive stalwart as a backup is proof of their amazing bench depth. This is a major reason they are still undefeated this season, and the girls have shown no signs of slowing down.
Staley has implemented a new culture into the South Carolina community, and its easy to tell how much she loves her players. As long as she is on the sideline, there will be a constant influx of talent coming through the school. Staley has been a mentor to her players, leading them to take their game to the next level after college. Players like Aliyah Boston, Tiffany Mitchell, Allisha Gray, and A'ja Wilson are all products of Staley who are in the midst of their WNBA careers. She also coached Team USA from 2017 to 2021, and leading them to a 45-0 record. Not only does Staley love her players at South Carolina, but she loves her coaches. She hired Gamecocks alumnus, Khadijah Sessions, as an assistant coach to her staff after an NCAA ruling that allowed her to increase the number of staff members. Khadijah played for Staley from 2013 to 2016, and she helped the Gamecocks win three SEC regular season championships.
Shortly after their latest win, it was reported by the Associated Press, that freshman reserve Sahnya Jah was suspended from the team indefinitely. The suspension came after it was announced she was conducting behavior 'detrimental' to the team. No other details were reported on the situation, and Staley has never had history of players abruptly being dismissed from her teams.
The Gamecocks are establishing a legendary lineage down in South Carolina. Staley has guided them to two championships already, with the very realistic goal of winning a third. Their momentum is unmatched, and they have the roster to compete with anyone. No matter who leaves or stays in this program, the Gamecocks should strike fear into the hearts of their opponents as long as coach Staley is on their sidelines.