Whether you call it irony or coincidence, the best team playing during college basketball’s biggest moment during a month that’s dedicated to the history of women makes too much sense. Yes, we all think of the men’s game when we think of March Madness. And yes, the men’s game brings in all the money. But, commerce and attention can’t get you what Dawn Staley’s team has — domination.
James Brown’s lyrics have materialized on a basketball court.
Sporting a perfect 32-0 record and led by the only Black coach in the history of the game to ever win multiple NCAA Tournaments, Staley’s Lady Gamecocks will be the best team you see on TV this month.
When No. 1 South Carolina takes on No. 16 Norfolk State on Friday afternoon, the Spartans will just be the latest team to exit the floor with a loss on their record. They don’t have a chance. And that’s no disrespect to their program, it’s just that no one has had one of late against South Carolina.
South Carolina’s résumé speaks for itself
Since 2015, this is the Lady Gamecocks’ résumé: Final Four (2015), Sweet Sixteen (2016), National Championship (2017), Elite Eight (2018), Sweet Sixteen (2019), Final Four (2021), National Championship (2022). South Carolina has lost a total of two games the past two seasons, as they were 36-2 last year.
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And it’s not like they’re feeling the pressure of entering the tournament undefeated.
“I just talked to our players about this today,” Staley said last month. “We don’t need a loss to make a push. Last year did we need it? Maybe. I don’t know. But it happened. And it was a push that helped us.
“They’re not coming into practice thinking, ‘Oh, we’re undefeated,” Staley explained about her team. “It’s not something in the forefront of their minds. Even when we played as close as we did in the overtime game at Ole Miss, they never flinched. They didn’t think about it. They just went into the mode of, ‘We’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win, however many minutes that is.’”
Only four programs have completed undefeated seasons
According to ESPN, nine teams from four programs in NCAA women’s basketball history have finished a season undefeated: the Texas Longhorns (1986), UConn Huskies (1995, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2016), Tennessee (1998) and the Baylor Bears (2012). South Carolina is looking to turn that nine into a 10 and put its program into the history books.
In college basketball, especially in the women’s game, the best programs have always been led by the best coaches. Yes, star players matter, but the play callers have been the ones that have survived the test of time. Tennessee had Pat Summit. UConn has Geno Auriemma. Notre Dame had Muffet McGraw. And LSU and Baylor have had Kim Mulkey. In Staley, South Carolina not only has a coach that will take a stand and has made history, but they also have someone who should have already broken down a barrier as the first female coach in the NBA — not Becky Hammon.
“I come with a lot of credentials,” Staley told the New York Times in 2021 when she was interviewed for the Portland Trail Blazers head coaching job. “I surely have the confidence. I surely can stand in front of men and lead them. First-team All-Stars. MVPs. I’m OK with that.
“I haven’t coached in the league,” Staley explained. “But you know what? I’m a quick learn. I’m a quick learn.”
March is a month that guarantees uncertainty. But when it comes to the 2023 NCAA Tournament, the South Carolina women’s basketball team is the safest pick.
Carron J. Phillips