The Daily Gamecock

Gamecocks square off against Notre Dame in Final Four


As South Carolina wrapped up practice on Thursday before traveling to Tampa Bay to face Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Final Four, head coach Dawn Staley gathered her team and repeated one specific phrase multiple times to her players.

“This is a business trip,” Staley said, reminding the Gamecocks of what’s at stake in these upcoming days.

Yes, South Carolina is happy with what it’s accomplished this year. A Final Four appearance, along with an SEC tournament championship already make this season a historic one.

But the Gamecocks are now just two wins away from winning a national championship, a goal Staley wasn’t hesitant telling recruits about even in her early years at South Carolina, when success on the court wasn’t exactly evident.

“It was definitely something something she pitched to us,” senior forward Aleighsa Welch said. “It was something she wanted us to really believe in.”

So forgive Staley and her team for wanting more. A goal set so long ago is now extremely close to becoming a reality.

But before South Carolina can even have a chance to play in a national championship game, it must deal with a very talented Notre Dame team that has a big advantage in terms of experience in pressure-filled situations.

Unlike South Carolina, Notre Dame has been to the Final Four plenty of times. The Fighting Irish’s presence in Tampa Bay this weekend will mark Notre Dame’s fifth straight appearance in the event.

Led by first-team All-American junior guard Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw once again has a very talented team.

The Fighting Irish have handled an extremely tough schedule well, going 35-2 up to this point, while winning the ACC tournament.

In NCAA tournament play, Notre Dame cruised through its first three games before pulling out a nine-point win over second-seeded Baylor in the Elite Eight.

“Notre Dame, they’re like a machine from an offensive standpoint,” Staley said. “They’re in the likes of Connecticut where they find the person who’s supposed to shoot it.”

That particular person this year for Notre Dame has been Loyd.

As much as South Carolina junior shooting guard Tiffany Mitchell is the catalyst for the Gamecocks on offense, so is Loyd for the Fighting Irish.

The Lincolnwood, Illinois native averages just beneath 20 points per game and is the go-to scorer on a team that puts up over 80 points per game.

In terms of the impact she has on Notre Dame, Welch likened Loyd’s role to that of Breanna Stewart at Connecticut or Mitchell at South Carolina.

But Welch also said there’s not a specific way to stop Loyd, other than just playing solid team defense.

“At the end of the day it just comes down to team defense,” Welch said. “She’s a great player. She’s an All-American for a reason and she put herself in a really good position. But I also think you can’t just get lost in just trying to contain her. They have a really great team.”

But outside of Loyd, many believe that Notre Dame is a good matchup for South Carolina. South Carolina carries a big size advantage into Sunday’s game and the Gamecocks’ consistently productive bench should help, too.

“I don’t think we match up very well,” McGraw said of South Carolina. “They are so strong in the post and their depth. You can’t even think about getting them in foul trouble or what if they play with a smaller lineup because they have so many people they can bring off the bench.”

One point of emphasis for the Gamecocks on Sunday will be getting off to a fast start. South Carolina fell behind early and had to make comebacks in its wins over fourth-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded Florida State this past weekend in Greensboro.

That can’t be the case against Notre Dame, Staley says.

“I think we do need to get off to a quicker start and not dig ourselves a hole,” Staley said. “But Notre Dame is a the type of team that is very patient; they’re very calculating. They like to make you play for long stretches on defense.”

Regardless, Staley just wants her team to stay focused. One more win gives them the opportunity to play for a title.

“It’s a game,” Staley said. “It’s a game to get to the ultimate goal.”