The Daily Gamecock

Column: Despite tough ending, past season by Gamecocks was most important in program history


Following South Carolina’s heartbreaking 66-65 loss to Notre Dame in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament, there was no pity party thrown by head coach Dawn Staley or her players. Nor was there any gushing over how their season had already been guaranteed a success regardless of the outcome.

Instead, the Gamecocks talked about how they fell short of their season-long goal of winning a national championship.

“I told our team that we came up short,” Staley said. “Obviously we wanted to win the national championship.”

Sunday’s loss to the Fighting Irish certainly can be viewed as a missed opportunity. South Carolina held a one-point lead and possessed the ball with less than 42 seconds remaining, but couldn’t hold on for a win that would have granted the Gamecocks a rematch with Connecticut in Tuesday’s national championship game.

All that is very true and certainly the sting of defeat — especially after a season-ending loss — is hard to overcome, but when the dust settles, it should be clearly evident that the 2014-2015 season was the most important and best season in the history of South Carolina women’s basketball. The final score of Sunday night’s game had no effect on that.

By winning a program-record 34 games and making it to Tampa Bay, the Gamecocks proved to the nation that last year’s success was no fluke, and they’re here to stay.

“One day we’ll be national champs,” South Carolina sophomore center Alaina Coates said.

Having just completed her seventh season in charge of the South Carolina program, it’s more obvious than ever before that Staley has the Gamecocks on their way to the top of women’s basketball. With the way she’s set things up, it doesn’t look like their spot amongst the sport's best is likely to change anytime soon.

This past season was a year of firsts for South Carolina — the Gamecocks overcame their Sweet 16 hump, reached the Final Four for the first time in program history, repeated as SEC regular-season conference champs and won their first ever SEC tournament.

While all those accomplishments may still seem new for a South Carolina program that was rather dormant before Staley arrived, the infrastructure is in place for the Gamecocks to achieve feats like the ones they did this past season on a yearly basis.

Looking ahead to next season, South Carolina returns 12 of its 15 players from this year’s team and 77.7 percent of its scoring, and while it will be hard to replace the leadership and toughness of seniors Aleighsa Welch, Elem Ibiam and Olivia Gaines , the future appears bright for the Gamecocks.

Perhaps no one better represents what could happen in the coming years than freshman guard/forward A’ja Wilson.

Less than 12 months after the Hopkins, South Carolina, native committed to the Gamecocks, Wilson saved one of her best performances of the season for when her team needed it the most Sunday night.

As South Carolina overcame a double-digit second half deficit against Notre Dame, it was Wilson who led the charge, scoring 14 of her team-high 20 points after halftime.

Landing a player as highly-touted as Wilson over the likes of Connecticut, Tennessee and North Carolina is evidence that Staley has the ability to make South Carolina a perennial powerhouse.

With first-team All-American junior shooting guard Tiffany Mitchell returning for one final season, the Gamecocks definitely have the potential to be a championship contender come next year.

But, more importantly, Staley has established a system that should allow South Carolina to compete for titles for several years to come, not just next season.

“We’re not far off,” Staley said. “We just have to continue and get the experience of playing in the Final Four.”