The Daily Gamecock

Column: South Carolina women's basketball team will return to championship weekend

The South Carolina women's basketball team celebrates after a win in the 2021 NCAA tournament.
The South Carolina women's basketball team celebrates after a win in the 2021 NCAA tournament.

The South Carolina women’s basketball team is poised to make a return to the Final Four after a heartbreaking loss to Stanford in the final seconds on April 2. 

The program that head coach Dawn Staley built at South Carolina is begging to reign over women’s basketball, finishing as a top 10 team eight times in the last 10 years, including the shortened 2020 season. 

In Staley’s end of the year press conference on Wednesday, she said the loss in the Final Four gives the team a starting point for where they want to be next year. 

“Anything less than a national championship is failure. That’s our expectation now is to win a national championship,” Staley said.

This team has shown that it has the talent to, at the very least, replicate the results from this past year. The Gamecocks led the SEC in scoring, rebounding and blocks on their path to their second straight SEC title. 

The Gamecocks will be returning every player from the 2020-21 roster. 

The only player that was questionable to return was senior guard Lele Grisset. All doubt was erased on Friday, April 16 when Grisset announced on Twitter that she will be returning for her final season of eligibility. 

Grisset, who was the anchor off the bench averaging 15.1 minutes per game in her career at South Carolina, missed the NCAA tournament with a lower right leg injury. 

The biggest returning piece will be the dynamic duo of the sophomores: forward Aliyah Boston and guard Zia Cooke.

Boston was the unanimous pick for National Freshman of the Year in the 2019-20 season and was named the Lisa Leslie Center of the Year. For a team that led the nation in blocks, Boston’s presence cannot be understated. 

Cooke led the Gamecocks in scoring, tallying 494 points and averaging 15.9 points per game. She ranked fifth in the SEC for total scoring. 

“We were right there," Cooke said, following the team's loss to Stanford. "So it’s tough, but I know we’re going to come back stronger and harder next year.”

The pair also received an invitation, along with junior guard Destaani Henderson, to the USA Basketball Olympic trials happening in Columbia later this month.

With the foundation in place, the Gamecocks achieved the top recruiting class in the country for the second time in three years. South Carolina landed four prospects in the top 15 in both 2019 and 2021 recruiting classes. 

For players coming in, Staley emphasized the culture of competition. Staley described her program as similar to that of a professional team.

“South Carolina creates what is very similar to a pro team in how you need to compete every single day and compete with who are people as talented as you are,” Staley said.

The top player in the 2021 class is five-star point guard Raven Johnson out of Westlake High School in Atlanta. Johnson highlights the guard-heavy class and was ESPN’s number two ranked recruit in the 2021 class. She averaged 14.7 points per game in high school according to MaxPreps. 

With the number one recruiting class and all of last year's players returning, the pieces are in place for South Carolina. The only thing left to do is to prove to the nation that this team is coming back to finish what it started.