March Madness Mix: Dominant Gamecocks amid Sweet 16 parity
Columbia, S.C. — South Carolina is keenly aware that everyone remaining in the women's NCAA Tournament field is coming after the undefeated Gamecocks — and hard.
That conviction has been boosted after two of the top four seeds in Indiana and Stanford were ousted — something that hasn't happened since 1998. If they didn't before, each of the Sweet 16 teams believe they can knock out the defending national champions, no matter how dominant the Gamecocks have been.
It makes for good theater — which is good for the sport.
Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn star turned ESPN analyst, calls South Carolina's dominance combined with Sweet 16 parity "an interesting dichotomy."
"It's like parallel paths, you have this overwhelming favorite to win it all, yet you have UConn losing to Marquette or Stanford losing in the second round," she said. "It's an interesting time for women's basketball."
South Carolina with its 40 straight victories isn't concerned about history, ratings or if the Gamecocks' drive for a second straight championship is good for the game.
"We're just about basketball," coach Dawn Staley says with admiration. "We really are."
Women's basketball is thriving even with the Gamecocks' dominance in the midst of rarely seen tournament chaos. South Carolina's four-team pod in Greenville, South Carolina, is all chalk. The top-seeded Gamecocks (34-0) play No. 4 seeded UCLA on Saturday with No. 2 seed Maryland taking on third-seeded Notre Dame.
South Carolina has three-time All-American Aliyah Boston, high-scoring Zia Cooke and a bench full of players who could start for most NCAA Tournament teams. That's helped the Gamecocks show a relentless push toward a third straight Final Four.
If they run the table, South Carolina would be the 10th undefeated Division I women's champion. The men have had just one in D-I: Indiana in 1976.
Analyst Debbie Antonelli believes women's basketball fans love the new faces and schools still alive in this tournament. She isn't sure how fans would react if the Gamecocks' seemingly inevitable championship run gets derailed short of the national title game.
"As someone who cares about ratings, I'd be curious," Antonelli said.
South Carolina is trying to join an exclusive club. The nine undefeated champions hail from just four schools: Texas, UConn, Tennessee and Baylor:
• UConn, which has gone undefeated an unprecedented six times. In 1995, the Huskies went 35-0 with Lobo leading the way. UConn went 39-0 in 2002, 2009 and 2010 with a slew of All-Americans, including Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Swin Cash. UConn followed those title runs by going 40-0 in 2014 and 38-0 in 2016.
• Texas was the first perfect champion, going 34-0 in 1986.
• Tennessee finished 39-0 in 1998 with the three "Meeks" in Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall.
• Baylor and Brittney Griner went 40-0 in 2012.
Coaches and players say there are no shortcuts for going undefeated.
Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters anchored the 1995 UConn team. There had only been one team prior to the Huskies as undefeated champions, so Lobo and her teammates never discussed that possibility.
"It was fun winning, it was fun not losing, but I can honestly tell you the undefeated portion was not something we thought about," she said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
Kellie Harper agrees. She was part of Pat Summitt's Tennessee team that was the first to go 39-0.
Harper said coaches don't enter seasons telling their players, "Let's be perfect this year." However, as the point guard on that 1997-98 team, having star players can be a difference-maker.
"Going down the stretch with three All-Americans, that made my job a lot easier," Harper, now coaching her alma mater, said before adding, "but it gave me a lot of confidence that we can do anything."
Staley's not sure all undefeated seasons are created equal. She recalls other perfect runs celebrated more than her team's current streak.
"My player, Aliyah Boston is not the one that's being talked about on men's games, OK? She's not," Staley said.
Iowa's Caitlin Clark has taken some of the national attention away from the perfect Gamecocks with her barrage of long-range jumpers and triple-doubles.
The Gamecocks have overcome several challenges this season.
They trailed by 10 through three quarters at Stanford last November before pulling out a 76-71 win in overtime. UConn held an 11-point first-half lead in February before South Carolina rallied for an 81-77 victory.
The Gamecocks advanced to their 10th Sweet 16 in 11 tournaments with a 76-45 win over feisty South Florida, which trailed by just 33-29 at the half. There was also an 64-57 overtime win at Ole Miss, which knocked off Stanford.
Yes, there is pressure to stay perfect.
"But it's also a lot of fun," sophomore reserve Bree Hall said.
South Carolina's experienced roster — including Boston, Cooke and fellow senior Brea Beal — knows what it takes to win. They've started since their freshman year in 2020, when their first title run was canceled by COVID-19. South Carolina was No. 1 in the rankings at 31-1 and on a 26-game win streak.
The Gamecocks will need that experience as the pressure ratchets up.
In 1995, UConn's two closest contests was a 67-63 win over Virginia in the Elite Eight and in the championship win, 70-64, over Tennessee.
Both UConn and Tennessee, that pesky Ole Miss squad and the rest of the Sweet 16 field would welcome a shot South Carolina — which is nothing new for the Gamecocks.