(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in South Carolina Athletics’ countdown. Starting Tuesday April 14, we will be revealing portions of the list nightly on 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Gamecocks history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk Radio Network.
#3: 2017 Women’s Basketball National Championship
Dawn Staley came to South Carolina in 2008 after taking Temple to the NCAA Tournament five out of six seasons. Her mission was to create a dynasty in Columbia, and in 2017, it came to fruition. The South Carolina women’s basketball team became national champions for the first time in program history, and was the first Gamecock program to achieve that since the 2010 and 2011 baseball teams. Years of recruiting and creating a culture amounted to one of the most dominant seasons on record, and a dynamic program that remains among the best in college basketball.
Ahead of the 2016-2017 season, Staley built a program that was on the precipice of attaining the ultimate goal. They made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, reaching the Sweet 16 three times and the Final Four once in that span. It was clear something fantastic was brewing in Columbia.
“To me, she’s basketball royalty,” said Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk Radio Network, who’s covered the Gamecocks for over thirty years. “She has been great at every level of the sport. Her playing days speak for (itself) and now her coaching days are doing the same thing.”
Staley brought some notoriety with her when coming to USC, having been a standout player at Virginia during her college years and later in the Olympics. She had since made a name for herself in the coaching ranks and with that came some highly sought after recruits.
“She’s highly demanding, she’s very tough, she pushes,” said Kornblut. “Those who stuck formed the backbone for what they have now.”
Forming the foundation of the team were local products in junior forward A’ja Wilson and senior center Alaina Coates.
“Those two could have gone anywhere in the country,” said Kornblut. “To keep them at home gave you some unbelievable talent to build around, which she was able to do with these other players.”
After losing a combined five games the previous two seasons, a national championship had become the expectation. Since 2015, it was common to have 10,000 fans at Colonial Life Arena to watch the Gamecocks.
“It all culminated for them in 2017,” said Kornblut. “The program caught on fire.”
South Carolina wielded one of the best defenses in college basketball, and had the offensive firepower to boot. Their two stars lived up to the moment as well. Wilson averaged over 17 points per game, was named SEC Player of the Year, and was a Naismith Award finalist. Coates averaged a double-double serving as the defensive enforcer in the post. Coates averaged 10 rebounds, adding 11 points per game, and was named to the SEC All-Defensive team.
Competing in a crowded SEC with great programs such as Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia, etc., the Gamecocks rolled through the conference, going 14-2 and earning a top seed in the SEC Tournament. They defeated Mississippi State 59-49 to become conference champions, making them a top-seed in the NCAA Tourney. But it came at a price, as their senior star, Coates, suffered an ankle injury and was ruled out the remainder of the year. Others had to step up in her place, and the Gamecocks had added motivation to empower their run.
In the opening round, South Carolina routed UNC Asheville, 90-40, but then met one their toughest challenges of the tournament in the second round.
Arizona State went toe-to-toe with the Gamecocks for the majority of the game. South Carolina, however, was able to fend off the Sun Devils late in the contest, winning by a slim 71-68 margin.
That test appeared to galvanize the team in the Sweet 16.
USC ran the floor against Quinnipiac, winning convincingly, 100-58. Only Florida State stood in the way of South Carolina making it back to the Final Four.
The third ranked Seminoles gave the Gamecocks a challenge, but it still wasn’t enough. USC defeated FSU, 71-64, their second win in a regional final over the Seminoles in three seasons.
The Final Four (Semi-final game, March 31, 2017)
South Carolina took on Stanford in the Final Four in Dallas and Wilson’s defense was on full display in the semifinals. The junior grabbed 19 rebounds, adding a team-high four assists, while Allisha Gray paced the Gamecocks, scoring 18. They got past the Cardinals, 62-53, punching their ticket to the national championship.
National Championship (April 2, 2017)
The 2017 national championship game at the American Airlines Center pitted South Carolina, a one seed, against SEC rival Mississippi State, a two seed.
The Bulldogs struck first, scoring on a three-pointer off the tip. And Mississippi State jumped out to a 7-3 lead within the first four minutes.
Future all-tournament team member Gray kicked it into gear early for the Gamecocks, dominating on the glass, drawing fouls, and converting free throws. By the end of the opening quarter SC had a four-point advantage, 18-14.
Gray’s impact continued in the second quarter, and she was joined by Wilson, who induced several fouls and secured timely rebounds as well. Both finished the opening half with a team-high 10 rebounds apiece. At the break, USC had extended its lead to 36-26.
The Gamecocks started off on a 6-2 run to open the second half.
Every time the Bulldogs threatened to cut into the lead, Carolina responded with another bucket, stymying the momentum.
Mississippi State wanted to attack SC from the perimeter, hoping their three-pointers could provide the spark they needed to begin cutting into the Gamecock lead. But they went 1-11 from downtown after their first make on their first shot of the game. USC’s defense was smothering, and the Bulldogs had trouble competing with them in the paint.
A few minutes into the fourth quarter, though, the MSU pulled within four points. But a block, a rebound, and a jumper from Wilson moved it back to six, and the Gamecocks finished the job from there, defeating Mississippi State, 67-55, making them national champions for the first time in program history.
“It was a great moment for South Carolina athletics,” said Kornblut. “Besides the baseball national championships, they hadn’t really had any big game, big team national championships to talk about.”
Wilson led the team with 23 points, but a complete team effort brought home the hardware.
“It’s so hard to do,” said Kornblut. “It’s so hard to navigate those land mines along the way in the NCAA Tournament.”
Staley had finally brought the team to its ultimate goal, an expectation she established when she was hired.
“Winning the national championship and cutting down those nets, it just vindicates everything you’ve been saying, and preaching, and doing,” said Krornblut. “It drove that home.”
The program has continued to achieve success the last three seasons, culminating in a number one ranking in 2019-2020 prior to the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation due to COVID-19. South Carolina almost assuredly would have been the top-seed.
“It (the 2017 title) foretold what was to come, because Staley has not let off the gas,” Kornblut added. “She has continued to build on that run to the national championship. And has maybe even taken her program, if it’s possible, to an even higher level.”
South Carolina Top Ten List: