MINNEAPOLIS — They made fun of each other. They were laughing among themselves. They shared meals, shared moments, dared to play ping-pong with their teammates, got serious at homework time and got very serious at basketball time.
Say this for the South Carolina women’s basketball team: regardless of the outcome, they went to the Final Four fully determined to enjoy and savor the moment. Even though it seems like performing on the biggest stage in the college game is now an annual event, nothing was taken for granted and no one needed to explain that the memories created over the last few days of the season would last forever.
The real “fun” for them, however, would only come from cutting the Championship nets on Sunday night.
So all of those pent up emotions erupted after finishing a wire-to-wire run as the nation’s top-ranked women’s basketball team by knock down UConn 64-49 Sunday night in the national title match.
The party was on.
Players shouted and shouted on the pitch as the final seconds ticked away, and then the party continued at the team hotel.
Around 300 people filled the hall and as the Gamecocks walked through the door, they cheered on every player who passed by. They saved their loudest shouts for the coach, chanting “Dawn, Dawn, Dawn” as Staley bumped his fist and took selfies with anyone who asked.
A member of the school pep band gave her a drumhead signed by this year’s musicians.
“Teams work hard all year,” Staley said, “but not all seasons end like this.”
Staley then went to a building adjacent to the hotel for a Gamecock Club celebration where football coach Shane Beamer was with his family.
There were more photos, more hugs and more thanks from Staley.
“We have a home-court advantage, which turns into a road-court advantage, because you show up,” she said.
“We have a Dawn advantage,” someone shouted as Staley beamed.
Then she gave them a hint of what was to come: “And that?” she said, “back to back”.
The Gamecocks granted The Associated Press behind-the-scenes access to their Final Four experience, a chance to observe them away from the public spotlight. It was clear there was a singular focus on the journey that began not last week but rather last year, almost immediately following a 66-65 domestic semi-final loss to eventual champion Stanford.
They were united in their goal of reaching this year’s Final Four. Once here, everything was done as a team. All.
And they had plenty of support every step of the way, right up to the exhilarating end at Target Center.
“Some fans had tickets and rooms long before us,” Staley joking told the AP at the team hotel earlier this week.
Expectations were justified. South Carolina started the season atop the AP Top 25 and never gave up the torch, spurred on by the heartbreaking loss at San Antonio a year ago when Aliyah Boston’s short setback in the last seconds did not drop.
They made getting back here easy. South Carolina, the top seed in this year’s tournament, reached the Final Four last week in Greensboro, North Carolina with an 80-50 win over Creighton.
It was time to pack his bags.
After the traveling group of 44 players, coaches, administrative staff and support staff arrived in Minneapolis on Tuesday, the next day the work really began.
After breakfast at the hotel, there was study and film practice.
But, in what has become a theme for the Gamecocks’ time in Minnesota, the agenda for that day was a mix of preparation and celebration.
After practice, the team went to Lowe’s Hotel near the Final Four arena to watch Boston and Staley win the Naismith Awards. The 6-foot-5 forward was named Defensive Player of the Year and National Player of the Year; Staley walked with Coach of the Year honors.
“Well done,” her first-year teammate Saniya Rivers shouted in Boston to cheers from the team.
Boston, not one to brag about herself, smiled and shook her head gently at the ruckus.
“It’s such a blessing to be here to see this,” said Cleone Boston, Aliyah’s mother.
On Thursday, Boston received more material when she was named AP Player of the Year. And each time the ceremonies were over, the group returned to the hotel to change, take a nap, and prepare for what was to come.
It was often a study room.
Academic sessions were held regularly in March, with the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments driving them away from campus.
Maria Hickman, the school’s DA executive associate and women’s basketball administrator, checks in the players, who spread out among the round banquet tables with laptops and cellphones for Facetiming tutors. Some, especially freshmen, spent more time in the 90-minute session than others.
“They understand what they have to do. They’re a good group,” Hickman said.
Ten players, all on this year’s roster, have made the SEC’s 2021 Winter Academic Honor Roll, including Boston South Carolina’s top five forward Victaria Saxton and guards Brea Beal, Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson. The list honors scholarship athletes with a GPA of 3.0 or better.
There was a little more levity at dinner after study hall, but not much.
Dinner was buffet style with pasta dishes, vegetables, fish and a platter of tacos. Fruit and slices of cheesecake were lined up for dessert. Water was the drink of choice.
The players kept frivolity to a minimum during the meal, knowing that a movie session followed. Staley’s assistant, Fred Chmiel, prepared the presentation in an adjoining room.
For the movie session, players sat at long tables set up in a U-shape with Chmiel in the middle in front of a projector frozen with an offensive Louisville backdrop. Chmiel asked them what they should have already studied about cardinals.
Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith?
“She can’t go straight. Stay in all games. Box her,” said Beal, the Gamecocks’ top perimeter defenseman.
Chmiel then grilled Boston, his new award serving as his new nickname.
“Naismith. Emily Engstler?” said Chmiel.
“I have to kick her out,” the center replied.
Midway through the session, two former South Carolina greats – A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray – make an appearance. Both Olympic gold medalists are in town for a US national team camp being held here in conjunction with the Final Four.
The two guests – “We’ve seen this many times before,” Wilson says of the movie session – pull up the chairs and the lights go out for about 10 minutes of Louisville offensive and defensive sets.
Around 8:30 p.m., the lights come on. The players, who know a long day is about to end, sigh audibly. They were clearly paying attention when studying the film: South Carolina beat Louisville.
After the Louisville victory, fans gathered in the team lobby to welcome the return of the Gamecocks. Everyone allowed themselves to enjoy the moment; Staley pumped his fist several times as the fans shouted, cheered and shouted.
Sporting director Ray Tanner joked about how he spoke with Staley at target center and she asked how he stood up to criticism of the school’s recent search to replace Frank Martin, which ended last week with the hiring of Lamont Paris of Chattanooga.
“I’m fine,” Tanner told her. “But you could help me a lot.”
Tanner didn’t have to say how. “Win it all” was not said, because it was clear.
So Saturday morning was back to school.
Cinematographic study with a session on Huskies, who beat defending champion Stanford 63-58 in the second semifinal.
Assistant Jolette Law, the former head coach of Illinois – and Harlem Globetrotter – led this one. She had led the movie session before South Carolina’s 73-57 victory over UConn, then second in the Bahamas, in November.
However, Staley was more talkative this time around, particularly about Huskies star Paige Bueckers.
“We’re going to change the way we play her throughout the game so she can’t feel comfortable,” the coach said.
Staley stressed the Gamecocks’ need to pick up the pace.
“We have to wear them out,” she said. “It can wear us down, but we outnumber them by a lot.”
Before he exhausted his own team, Staley knew that mental breaks were necessary. There were times when players headed to a fourth-floor lounge equipped with PlayStation and Nintendo Switch game systems. Boston and Beal settled into two leather massage chairs to play on their phones.
“I would like this to be part” of the player gift suite, Boston joked.
There’s a table tennis table with key reserve striker LeLe Grissett in full charge. First, she tries to teach second-year goaltender Eniya Russell how to play, before the young player gives up. Substitute striker Kamilla Cardoso sits smiling.
“Want to play? Who wants to play,” Grissett said.
Cooke and freshman Sania Feagin hold a quick contest to see who can best spin small commemorative basketballs on their finger. Then they start throwing faster and faster before Cooke’s throw goes away from Feagin.
These are loose, happy times for a group that has been chasing the game’s top prize all year.
“Every player on this team has made sacrifices,” Staley said in her 14th season. “For some, it plays a lot of minutes, for others it doesn’t play at all. But without them all playing their part, we wouldn’t be here, not at all.
This is the culture she has built.
In a few days, the year-long quest to make the 2023 Final Four will begin. Staley returns. Most of his team returns. This season is over, but the next celebration weekend is probably not far away.