South Carolina’s quest for a perfect season and back-to-back titles

Nearly a year earlier, South Carolina was stunned in the SEC tournament title game when Kentucky hit the championship-winning shot with less than five seconds left.

The moment seems like an eternity – in fact, 366 days have passed – considering all the Gamecocks have accomplished: a national championship, SEC regular-season And tournament titles and, most notably, an undefeated streak of 38 games dating back to the previous season that now officially spans a calendar year. The Gamecocks made sure to sweep away the competition this past weekend in Greenville, South Carolina, winning each game by an average margin of 24 points.

Nothing is guaranteed in the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament, where South Carolina is certain to be the No. 1 seed, but the Gamecocks are officially within reach of repeating not only as national champions, but among programs that have achieved an undefeated season. Joining the exclusive club. ,

Only four programs can claim such a feat: Texas (1985–86), Tennessee (1997–98), Baylor (2011–12) and, six times, UConn (1994–95, 2001–02, 2008– 09, 2009- 10, 2013-14, 2015-2016). Only two, the Lady Vols and the Huskies (three times), repeated as national champions, going undefeated in the process.

This year’s Gamecocks became the first team to enter March unbeaten since 2018, when both UConn and Mississippi State did so. Incidentally, neither squad held that distinction for very long, as the Bulldogs fell to South Carolina in the SEC tournament and Arike Ogunbowale’s famous buzzer-beaters defeated first the Huskies in the Final Four and then Mississippi State for the national title. was eliminated in the game.

As the Gamecocks near perfection, ESPN’s Charlie Cream, Alexa Filippo and MA Voepel take a look back at their season, how this team stacks up against undefeated teams of the past, Don Staley’s impact on the Gamecocks and more.

The NCAA Tournament bracket will be revealed Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), and South Carolina will host the opening round games, with the first round being played March 17-18.

Which former undefeated champions is the same as the 2022-23 Gamecocks?

I’ve had the privilege of watching every undefeated NCAA champion play in person. The 1986 Longhorns reminded me most of this South Carolina squad: Both had superstars and depth that was not only window dressing but was actually part of why they were ultimately impossible to stop. The 1998 Lady Vols were also deep and moved up the table in the SEC as did the Gamecocks.

The Longhorns were 29–0 entering the 1986 NCAA Tournament (there were still 40 teams in the field and they had a first-round bye) and a 66–63 victory over Ole Miss in the regional final was their first of five wins for the Nationals. There was only fear. Topic. Texas averaged 83.9 PPG that season, with the bench accounting for nearly half: 42.0. The reserves included freshman Clarissa Davis, who was a 1986 Final Four Most Outstanding Player after 56 points and 32 rebounds in Texas’ wins over Western Kentucky and USC.

Texas had six seniors — including Annette Smith, Kami Etheridge and Fran Harris — who had endured a lot together and formed a strong bond. The same goes for this year’s Gamecocks. They have six seniors who have played their entire college careers with South Carolina: Aliyah Boston, Gia Cook, Brea Beal, Leticia Amihere, Olivia Thompson and Victoria Saxton (in her fifth year), as well as graduate transfer Kiera Fletcher, who played four seasons. Spent Georgia Tech.

Just as Texas can turn to its bench for a good guy like Davis, the Gamecocks have players like 6-foot-7 junior center Kamila Cardoso and 6-5 Amihere. Together, they combine to average over 17 points and 12 rebounds.

The 1998 Tennessee team that went 39–0 was led by its juniors, Chmik Holdslaw and Kelly Jolley, and freshmen, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randle. Like Texas in 1986, there was only one close game in the title run of the ’98 Lady Vols, who were also in the Elite Eight. But Tennessee rallied to defeat North Carolina 76–70, then won blowouts against Arkansas and Louisiana Tech in the Final Four.

The following year, Holdslaw was the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 1999, as we hope Boston will be this year. Catchings was the No. 3 pick in 2001, partly because she had a knee injury that cut short her senior season, but she went on to have a stellar WNBA career.

The 1998 Tennessee team didn’t have the depth of 1986 Texas and 2023 South Carolina, but it did have players like Kyra Elzee, Kristen Clement and Teresa Geter – all of whom would be starting for several teams – coming off the bench. And, as South Carolina is now trying to do, the 1998 Lady Vols repeated as national champions; In fact, he did a three-peat, winning in 1996 and 1997.

An interesting footnote: Jolley — now Kelly Harper — is Tennessee’s coach, and Elzee is Kentucky’s coach. Both of them have lost twice to South Carolina this season. , MA Voppel

What is statistically different about South Carolina compared to other overall teams?



Cook, South Carolina claim SEC tournament title

No. 1 South Carolina hoisted its seventh SEC Tournament trophy in the last nine seasons behind Zea Cook’s 24 points in a 74-58 win over Tennessee.

The Gamecocks’ calling cards this season have been defense, rebounding and depth, and this dominance is reflected when comparing their statistics with other undefeated teams in those areas.

South Carolina’s plus-20.5 rebounding margin heading into the NCAA tournament would be the farthest and farthest from any previous undefeated team, with the next best mark coming from the 2002 Huskies (plus-15.5). The Gamecocks’ performance on the offensive glass, in particular, is a step above the rest: according to, their 48.6% offensive rebounding rate is the best mark in the country, with Boston and Cardoso mastering the glass.

Defensively, his 51.5 points allowed per game would be fourth best among right teams, with a handful of UConn squads in the 40s coming ahead of him. Similar to their rebounding prowess, the Gamecocks’ bench scoring (36.7 bench points per game) is eyebrow-raising, with 2016 UConn (23.5) coming in as the next closest of undefeated teams since 1999-2000.

Once again, Cardoso is responsible for much of this, averaging 10.0 points per game (third best on the team). But don’t sleep on Amihere, who averaged 12.3 points off the bench in the SEC tournament, or Raven Johnson, who scored a season-high 14 points in a huge four-point win over UConn. , Alexa Filippo

What has coach Don Staley done to get the Gamecocks this far?

Many things come to the fore. Player development has been key. Boston has become as good a college post defender as you’ll find, and he doesn’t rush or force his offense. Boston thinks the game very well, and it knows how dangerous South Carolina can be even when it’s not scoring big. If teams want to triple-team him, he will handle it well. Staley has helped instill patience in Boston.

Cooks has become a strong perimeter scorer whose defense has also risen to a level of always-reliable. Staley also encouraged Cook to develop his own confidence and not depend on getting it from his coach. She knew the best way for Cook to reach that level now was by learning to believe in herself.

Beal has played his defensive role like few players in the country. Cardoso and Amihere know how effective they are off the bench. In fact, it’s rare to see a decline in the quality or intensity of any South Carolina rotation. That is why there is no lethargy when facing them; The Gamecocks are capable of taking down even top opponents playing well.

What’s most impressive about Staley’s work is that he’s been able to get buy-in from all players on what their specific role is and why it’s important. This has never been the easy part of coaching, and it’s harder now than ever because transferring has never been easier. Under Staley’s leadership, the Gamecocks are unified, motivated and focused — and no one is complaining about playing time or using them. Staley’s players respect her for telling them how to go to another national championship. , vopel

Do the numbers back up South Carolina’s greatness?

South Carolina has held the No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll for 37 consecutive weeks and is on track to become just the third program to go wire-to-wire in the top spot in back-to-back seasons. What other stats show how impressive the Gamecocks have been?

According to, South Carolina is the top rated offensive and defensive team in the country. The last team to go an entire season undefeated, 2016 UConn, finished among the top in the nation on both ends of the court. That Huskies team outscored its opponents by an average of 39.7 points per game, while the Gamecocks are winning by an average margin of 30.3 points. Both were the best in the country. It should be noted that while UConn was the No. 1-rated non-conference program in 2016, it also played in the seventh-rated American Athletic Conference, while this year’s SEC is the third-ranked league. South Carolina has outscored its SEC foes by averaging 26.4 points per game.

Those numbers put the Gamecocks in a comparable position to a team that was capping a dynasty.

There is one important statistical nugget, however, that separates this South Carolina team from the 2016 Huskies or any other team of the last 20 years (or what I like to call the bracketology era): Not only have the Gamecocks remained number one The 1st-ranked team in the AP Top 25 Poll all season, they have been the top-ranked team every day since the NCAA released the first net rankings on December 4 (net is the fundamental metric the selection committee US has and is a multiple number) -based approach to measuring the value of a team).

In fact, over the past two seasons — including last year’s title when South Carolina lost two games — there have only been four days when the Gamecocks didn’t have a No. 1-ranked team in net (NC State slipped past South Tha) Carolina January 7 and January 20-22, 2022). In 2016, when RPI was used as the base metric for evaluating teams, UConn lost the top spot in mid-January and never regained it. The Huskies, of course, were still the No. 1 overall seed and went on to win their fourth consecutive NCAA title, but most important of all analysis, this South Carolina team has surpassed the last undefeated team. , charlie cream

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