South Carolina will be back

Even after losing in the waning seconds of the Final Four, Staley retains her rotation and adds the top-ranked recruiting class

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SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 2: Victaria Saxton #5 of the South Carolina Gamecocks and Cameron Brink #22 of the Stanford Cardinal fight for the tip-off during the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 2, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon via Getty Images)

Just short

The Gamecocks fell centimeters short of a National Championship berth on Friday.

They’ll be back.

“I just told our players the margin of error is that small,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “It's that small competing for a national championship, winning a national championship. It won't be our last time being in this situation. Next year we've just got to practice with that margin of error in mind."

The Gamecocks put the ball in the hands of their stars early and were met with mixed results and stifling interior defense. Stanford’s depth at the post position meant they could experiment with options that might limit Aliyah Boston. That option seemed to come off the bench in the form of Ashten Prechtel, who disrupted the Gamecocks interior scoring with her length.

South Carolina’s strategy kept them in the ballgame: Boston and Zia Cooke were not only the only Gamecocks to step up in the first half — they were the only ones to convert a single field goal. They trailed 31-25 at the half.

Cooke was far from satisfied with her first-half performance and commanded South Carolina with her historic second-half as she finished with 25 points on 5-8 shooting from deep. It didn’t hurt that her teammates finally began to step up. Destanni Henderson hit two big shots down the stretch to keep South Carolina in the game — shots that especially mattered when Boston picked up her fourth foul with eight minutes remaining, which forced Staley to swap her All-American in on offense and out on defense.

With 32 seconds remaining, Stanford’s Haley Jones followed up Lexi Hull’s miss with a go-ahead midrange jumper. It was the last shot anyone would make in this game.

With 13 seconds left, Brea Beal stole the ball from a rattled Stanford squad and made a beeline for the hoop, tossing up a contested layup that ultimately bricked off the rim. Over the outstretched arms of nearly every Cardinal player, Boston went up and tried to put the ball back, but the shot was just centimeters too long, clanking off the back of the rim and sealing the Gamecocks’ 66-65 loss.

“You've gotta replace it with other great moments,” Staley said. “Aliyah is wired that way ... If she's ever put in this position again, she'll knock it down."

"I know how hard we work,” Cooke added. “We were right there, so it's tough. But I know we're gonna come back stronger and harder next year."

Looking ahead

South Carolina went six players deep in the Final Four.

They’re all coming back. And now, they’re battle-tested.

As if that isn’t enough — and it might have been — they’re bringing in the country’s top-ranked recruiting class led by three top-5 recruits.

Boston enters next season in a nearly identical fashion 2020: as the most dominant post presence in college basketball, but with a bigger chip on her shoulder and likely without a global pandemic.

Beyond Boston, South Carolina knows it has a secondary star in its rotation for at least two more seasons. Boston may be the Gamecocks’ best player, but their momentum crescendoed when the ball was in Cooke’s hands.

"Zia is built for the biggest stage,” Staley told assembled media in the postgame Zoom. “The biggest stage."

From here on out, there won’t be a coach in America who doesn’t gameplan for hot-handed Zia Cooke.

The sophomore guard had no fear in her eyes against Stanford, whose defense has allowed less than 65 points in all but two games during the regular season. Cooke can create any shot she wants.

“Some of the plays that Zia made, most men can’t make that play, that snatchback, crossover dribble pull-up, most men can’t do that,” Staley said when asked about the growth of the women’s game.

But this game also showed that South Carolina has its flaws — however slight, they weren't enough to make the Championship.

Stanford bullied South Carolina on the offensive glass and feasted with second-chance points, a new experience for the Gamecocks defense. South Carolina allowed just 7.4 second-chance points per game during the regular season — in the Final Four, Stanford had 24. This isn’t a symptom of the Gamecocks issues, but rather a warning: great teams can exploit even what you might consider as a strong suit.

For as well as it shot in this game, it wouldn’t hurt if South Carolina reinforced its 3-point shooting this offseason. The Gamecocks, for all of their strengths, haven’t made the outside shot a deadly threat. That hasn’t necessarily been a problem for top programs in the past (looking at you, Baylor), and South Carolina even made a respectable 33.7 percent of their 3-point shots this season. But they attempted just 13 outside attempts per game, which could bump up a few notches.

"We shoot the heck out of the three [in this game]," Staley said. "I knew we would be in a position to hold them from attempting 3-point baskets. That is what gave us an opportunity to win. I felt like if we allowed them to shoot their 3's we couldn't generate enough two-pointers. It was a direct opposite.”

The Gamecocks also need to move the ball better. They rely heavily on Boston and Cooke to create their shots, and in the Final Four, the other options often stepped away for Boston and Cooke isolations. Outside shooting would give them more space to cook, but ball movement will really unlock their stars’ skillsets. Out of teams seeded 1-8 in this tournament, only Arkansas had a lower assisted shot rate per Her Hoop Stats.

The loss will hurt. Sometimes, Haley Jones won’t miss. Sometimes, the last shot doesn’t fall. But this team is still dangerous and should be proud of what it accomplished, especially on the back of a young roster. 

But their strongest emotion isn’t pride right now. It’s hunger.