Sports Journalism Blog

By Hanna Barton | @Hannabarton00

Sports Capital Journalism Program

CLEVELAND — Before facing Iowa in Sunday’s NCAA tournament title game, the South Carolina Gamecocks had won 37 games this season. They had lost zero. In their victory over Iowa in today’s national championship, their bench put up 37 points. Iowa’s bench put up zero.

“Dawn told us before the game started… we’re the best bench in the business,” shared freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, who had nine points and four assists off the bench today.

Now, the Gamecocks finished at 38-0. South Carolina is just the 10th team to put together a perfect run that culminated with a national title. It’s easy to sit here after today’s game and rank this South Carolina team among the best in women’s college basketball history. But, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

“We’ve exceeded expectations, internally and externally,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “To be undefeated … so unexpected. So, so very unexpected. There are plenty of times when I thought we should’ve won a national championship, but we didn’t. This is somewhat of a repayment.”

Sixth. That’s where this national championship team ranked in this year’s AP preseason poll. Many deemed this season a rebuilding year for the program. Half of last year’s South Carolina team, which went undefeated before a loss in the Final Four, graduated with most going on to play in the WNBA. But with a roster comprised of over 50% underclassmen, the Gamecocks started their season with a dominant win over Notre Dame in Paris.

“After that game in Paris… I knew that we were special,” shared sophomore Ashlyn Watkins. “We took it practice-by-practice, game-by-game.”

After defeating the 10th-ranked Irish 100-71, the chance of another South Carolina national championship showed a spark of hope. As the season continued, that spark became a flame, then later became a wildfire of utter dominance.

The fuel to that fire is found in South Carolina’s depth, which was pivotal in Sunday’s national championship. Heading into the title game, it was no secret that South Carolina’s bench was going to be key in taking down Caitlin Clark and Iowa. The Gamecocks’ bench is second in the nation with 33.8 points per game and outscored its opponents’ starters 11 times this season.

“That was a huge advantage because I think they played nine people in double figures. We had six,” said Iowa coach Lisa Bluder. “To be able to have all those fresh legs on Caitlin was really tough.”

South Carolina’s reserves outscored Iowa 37-0, and overall, their 222 bench points are the most by a bench in a single tournament since 2000.  Freshman guard Tessa Johnson led the team today with a season-high 19 points and earned a spot on the All-Final Four team. Her performance marks the 14th time this season that South Carolina’s leading scorer has come from the bench.

“Honestly, I mean I was a little nervous coming into the game,” Johnson said. “But I think I just had so much faith and trust in not only my team, but in God. I just had a feeling out there before the game. I just trusted who we are as a team… but taking this moment in is everything. Everything.”

Throughout the season, it has been clear that the trust displayed not just by Johnson but the entire South Carolina team is put primarily in their coach, and rightfully so. Staley has been named national coach of the year by at least one organization five times, including four in the last five seasons, and builds her championship teams on a foundation of personal relationships.

“Man, she’s so important to have in people’s lives,” said senior Te-Hina Paopao. “She changes lives for the better. I wish you guys could experience that and just how much she’s helped me as a player and as a woman. People just love playing for her. People would run through brick walls for her.”

Sunday’s win marks the third national championship for Dawn Staley, all with the Gamecocks. Under her leadership, South Carolina is now perfect in national championship play, having won all three title games they have played in. This year’s, however, is not only the most unexpected, but the first to come with an undefeated season.

“It’s unbelievable,” Staley choked through tears. “I’m so proud. So proud.”