NCAAW: South Carolina emerges as clear no. 1, undefeated for a second consecutive season

Under the leadership of SEC Coach of the Year Dawn Staley, the South Carolina Gamecocks have completed another season without a single loss. In their final regular-season game, they secured a 76-68 victory over Tennessee, wrapping up another successful campaign.

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE - FEBRUARY 15: Kamilla Cardoso #10 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates a basket and foul against the Tennessee Lady Vols in the fourth quarter at Thompson-Boling Arena on February 15, 2024 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

You have to give credit where credit is due. Dawn Staley has undeniably left her mark at South Carolina, with a legacy that extends far beyond the basketball court. In doing so, she's built a dynasty.

What an incredible year it has been for the South Carolina Gamecocks women's basketball team. With back-to-back undefeated seasons, Dawn Staley earned the title of SEC Coach of the Year, and several players earned personal awards. While their achievements may have been somewhat overlooked amidst historic records elsewhere, we cannot ignore the immense success of this program and the positive impact Staley is making.

Since Dawn Staley took over as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the 2008-2009 season, she has led them to two national titles, notably securing their first in 2017. In a career 537 games, she has a remarkable 431-106 win loss record during her tenure. Following a heartbreaking loss to Iowa in the semifinals in 2023, the Gamecocks surprised many with their remarkable comeback season this year. Not even Staley saw this coming.

Staley is funny, yet determined. Despite describing her team as "chatty in practice," the performance they deliver on the court often contrasts with the atmosphere during practice sessions.

After all, Staley's memorable remark about being called "boo" amidst the boos during their rival victory against LSU is one for the books.

The Gamecocks were expected to regress from last year

After a season of South Carolina's 29-0 dominance, Coach Staley was anticipated to face setbacks as five key players, including Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, departed for the WNBA Draft. With this loss, many expected the Gamecocks to regress after reaching the final four the previous year.

In a year full of surprises, Staley crafted one of her finest teams. Despite expectations for a rebuilding season, Kamilla Cardoso, named SEC Sixth Woman of the Year, shone as a standout player excelling on both offense and defense.

South Carolina bolstered its roster by adding senior guard Te-Hina Paopao from Oregon, who has chosen to return to the program for another season. Furthermore, senior center Sakima Walker transferred to the program from Rutgers, providing additional depth and talent to the team.

Key players such as Bree Hall, Chloe Kitts, Raven Johnson, Ashlyn Watkins, and Sania Feagin returned for South Carolina, providing continuity and strength to the team. Coach Staley also found success with the recruitment of freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, who has shown promise in her debut season. In fact, she was named All-Freshman SEC team.

South Carolina's dominance started from the beginning of the season

The Gamecocks started off on the right foot, defeating Notre Dame in a specialty debut game in Paris. From there, South Carolina had strong defeats over No. 14 Maryland, No. 24 North Carolina, No. 11 Utah, No. 9 LSU, and No. 11 UConn. With an astonishing 258 point differential in their first five games against Notre Dame, Maryland, Clemson, South Dakota State, and Mississippi Valley State, they made shockwaves around the basketball world.

During their commanding season, the Gamecocks showcased their defensive prowess by holding teams like Clemson, Morgan State, Presbyterian, East Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Alabama to 45 points or fewer.

A standout moment occurred on November 24th when they secured a historic 101-19 victory over Mississippi Valley State University, conceding just seven points in the second half. While not all opponents were highly ranked, these performances underscored the exceptional quality of the team's defense.

Additionally, Tessa Johnson from Albertville, Minnesota, was signed as the No. 25 recruit, although she hasn't seen much playing time yet. Staley also brought in freshman forward Sahnya Jah to add depth to the roster.

This season, South Carolina essentially debuted a fresh starting lineup.

Staley not only had a completely new starting five, but Cardoso also showcased remarkable improvement, posting career-best statistics. In her third season with the Gamecocks, she averaged 25 minutes, 14.1 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and shot an impressive 58.1% from the field. Cardoso's outstanding performance earned her the title of SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

With near double-double averages on a consistent basis, the Brazilian native showcased her dominance with a remarkable stretch of 24 blocks in just eight games from January 15 to February 18. Serving as the anchor of the team, Cardoso delivered a standout performance in her final regular season game against Tennessee, tallying 18 points and 14 rebounds.

Dawn Staley's exceptional leadership was once again recognized as she earned the title of SEC Coach of the Year for the third consecutive season. Beyond her coaching prowess, it's the small gestures off the court that truly resonate with her players, capturing their attention and admiration. To be a great coach, there must be a connection and love for the players, and Staley showed that on Senior Day. Get ready to bring your tissues out.

Dawn Staley reunited Kamilla Cardoso with her family

If you weren't aware, senior standout Kamilla Cardoso hails from Brazil, where she left her family during middle school to chase her basketball aspirations in the United States. Despite facing numerous obstacles, she secured a scholarship to Syracuse but ultimately transferred to South Carolina in her second year. Now, as she pursues her dream of playing in the WNBA, Coach Staley orchestrated an emotionally stirring surprise during last Saturday's practice.

Senior day is already an emotional occasion, but celebrating it without loved ones would be incredibly challenging. To Coach Staley's credit, she took the initiative to ensure that Kamilla Cardoso's family could be present to watch her during her final collegiate game. This thoughtful gesture undoubtedly added a significant layer of meaning to the occasion for Cardoso and her family.

Initially denied entry to the US, Coach Staley intervened, contacting state representatives to facilitate the arrival of Kamilla Cardoso's mother, Janete Soares, and sister, Jessica Silva, from Brazil to South Carolina.

For the South Carolina Gamecocks, it's bigger than basketball

It was the first time her family had ever seen her play a college game in person.

"This is kind of an incredible moment for all of us, " said Staley in practice. "For someone that's made incredible sacrifices for her family for the past eight years. For the past eight years, just for this game. Just for the game that she loves. " (South Carolina Women's Basketball X account)

Despite the challenges, the emotional reunion was evident, leaving Cardoso visibly shocked and moved, with her hands covering her face as her family entered the practice facility. In such a wholesome moment, Staley showed that it's so much more than basketball. Her drive and empathy to facilitate this move spoke volumes.

"We got a chance to do something pretty special, yup, yup, " said coach Staley. "Kamilla, let's bring the people who also made that sacrifice for the past eight years. To be away from your family for as long as you've been away from your family, we wanted to make this day special." (South Carolina Women's Basketball X account).

And just like that, the best coach in all of women's basketball just reunited her star player with her family. She's been seen supporting former players off the court, such as A'ja Wilson in the WNBA Finals at the Barclays center. Her ability to connect with current and former players is truly heartwarming.

Now that the seniors have received their perfect sendoff, the Gamecocks are gearing up to face Texas A&M on Friday night in the SEC tournament. With few weaknesses in their game, South Carolina appears poised for yet another outstanding season under the leadership of Coach Staley.

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Sara Jane Gamelli is a full-time Sportswriter, Content Creator and Social Media Manager at Ballislife. She has a focus on the NBA, WNBA, NCAA Basketball, and the NFL. Sara Jane currently resides in Connecticut/NYC area with her Cat and Dog. SJ has her undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut in Economics, with a minor in business administration.


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