Staley 'really happy' after Gamecocks punch Final Four ticket

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- It's rare that a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament has a David and Goliath feel. But what we've seen from the unbeaten South Carolina women's basketball team this season is pretty rare, too.

This is a squad with a 6-foot-7 center in Kamilla Cardoso who can miss a shot and then have a 6-5 All-American in Aliyah Boston there for the putback basket. Most teams would be beyond thrilled to have even one of them. The defending national champion Gamecocks have both, and that's just part of their relentless lineup.

Maryland was the latest to experience this as the Gamecocks won 86-75 on Monday night in the Greenville 1 Regional final at South Carolina's home away from home in Bon Secours Wellness Arena. It's about 103 miles to the Gamecocks' Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, but the loud presence of thousands of South Carolina fans here made the two buildings pretty much indistinguishable over the past few days.

South Carolina won the SEC tournament in the Greenville arena on March 5, and 22 days later, it took the NCAA regional title here to advance to its third consecutive women's Final Four and fifth overall.

The Gamecocks (36-0) remain on a path to become the 10th team -- and fifth program -- to finish unbeaten in the NCAA era, which began for women's sports in the 1981-82 school year. UConn has had a perfect season six times, and Texas, Tennessee and Baylor have each done it once.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley went to three consecutive Final Fours as a player for Virginia from 1990 to 1992. She didn't win an NCAA title then, though; it took until 2017, when she coached the Gamecocks to their first. Now, she will be going for her third with South Carolina.

"You've got to get a little lucky, and you've got to get some players that really believe in it and that are unified, that really see, honestly, the bigger picture," Staley said of South Carolina's success. "That is rare nowadays, because a lot of times young people only see themselves and what they want to accomplish.

"But when you get a combination of players who want those things, individual things, but they see the overarching big picture ... we've been very lucky at South Carolina where we got groups of players that basically clump together and want to play together to do some special things."

This group is led by senior post player Boston, who is expected to be the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick next month. On Monday, she had 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and afterward, she showed off her latest piece of a net. Boston said even after a lot of practice, she doesn't cut nets very well, which at this point might be the only flaw in her game.

"Hopefully, I'll get to do it again," Boston said of going for another national championship in Dallas. "Not a lot of teams can do this. For us, this is not something we take for granted."

The Gamecocks might not have been looking ahead. But LSU coach Kim Mulkey jumped the gun a bit on Sunday after winning the Greenville 2 Regional here by celebrating that there would be two SEC teams in the women's Final Four.

It was understandable on Mulkey's part, as the Gamecocks' name has not just been penciled into the Final Four bracket, but written in ink. Boston said her grandparents from the Virgin Islands told her before Monday's game they would be headed to Dallas. She tried to remind them the Gamecocks had business to take care of first.

South Carolina did that despite a slow start and trailing 21-15 after the first quarter. With a 23-9 second quarter, the Gamecocks reestablished order. The 11-point winning margin seemed bigger, but it was more than enough. Boston's grandparents can keep those flight reservations.

Next up in Dallas on Friday will be guard Caitlin Clark and Iowa, which is appearing in that program's first Final Four since 1993. Clark had a game for the ages in Sunday's Seattle 4 Regional final victory over Louisville, registering a record triple-double of 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.

All season, Clark and Boston have been considered the top candidates for national player of the year. Last season, Boston collected the various NPOY awards, but Clark is considered the front-runner now.

Boston said she knows of Iowa's fast-paced style and high-powered offense. With South Carolina being considered one of the best defensive teams ever in the women's college game, it should be a classic contrast in styles.

"I think it's going to be a great game for women's basketball as a whole," Boston said.

Staley said she knows she and the Gamecocks will be answering a lot of questions regarding Clark and Iowa over the next few days, but for Monday night, the coach wanted to soak in another trip to the Final Four.

"I just want to enjoy this and just give our players an opportunity to be talked about," Staley said. "The joy that I feel for this team to be able to be where they are, I'm just really happy."