DALLAS -- South Carolina coach Dawn Staley took issue with a narrative that the Gamecocks play overly physical and aggressive, saying that it affects the way her team is viewed.
Staley, speaking after the Gamecocks' 77-73 loss to Iowa in the national semifinal on Friday night, was asked if she felt the narrative had an impact on the game.
"I do think with all the talk of how we play and the physical nature in which we play and the description of our team, I do think it plays a part," Staley said. "People got to do what they got to do to win. I'm not going to stoop that low. We've won a lot of basketball games doing it this way. We're not changing."
Guard Zia Cooke took it a step further, saying, "The refs were not on our side at all, at all. And people say don't put it on the refs or whatever. But we had to fight against the team we were playing and the refs tonight, and if y'all was watching the game, you should know that."
Cooke said the difference in officiating Friday night affected South Carolina's entire game plan. The Gamecocks were whistled for 20 fouls, just the third time all season they were called for 20 or more fouls during a regulation game. The last time it happened was against UConn on Feb. 5.
Cooke noted that the team was officiated differently in the SEC, perhaps because the league officials are used to the physicality with which South Carolina plays. Of the three times this season South Carolina was whistled for 20 or more fouls, two were against non-SEC opponents.
"In my opinion I don't think they call games like that in SEC play," Cooke said. "You couldn't do anything. They were doing the same stuff to us, but hey, it was hard, and it was definitely hard for our post players to be who they are tonight."
Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston, the 2021-22 player of the year, was whistled for two fouls in the first nine minutes of the game and then sat out the entire second quarter. After that, Cooke said, Boston was hesitant to play her game because she was worried she would get called for more fouls. Boston finished with eight points in 25 minutes.
"That's somebody you rely on a lot," guard Brea Beal said. "You want them to have a smooth-flowing game, so it was definitely frustrating."
Staley did not directly question the officiating Friday night, saying only that Boston did not have the "freedom of movement" she was used to.
"She knows how to handle foul trouble," Staley said. "She knows what needs to get done. Again, it's hard for her to move. It's hard to officiate the way the game was played. It's just hard to officiate. When she's 2-for-9, you know, two fouls in the first couple minutes of the first quarter, it's hard. She's a big part of what we do."
Staley's remarks came days after comments made by Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder heading into the Final Four. Asked about South Carolina's dominance on the glass, Bluder said the Gamecocks are "an amazing offensive rebounding team," and went on to add, "Somebody kind of just described it to me as you're going to a bar fight when you try to go rebound against them, they're just so good."
Earlier this season, Staley also spoke out after UConn coach Geno Auriemma commented following the Huskies' loss to the Gamecocks that it was "appalling" how teams were guarding Lou Lopez-Sénéchal.
"It's not basketball anymore," Auriemma said then. "I don't know what it is, but it's not basketball."
After the Final Four game, Boston talked about Bluder's "bar fight" comment and said it's an example of how people focus only on South Carolina's physicality and not on the opponent's.
"I think when we look at it, it's like we're always the aggressor, when I don't feel like that's the case," Boston said.
Staley added: "We're not bar fighters. We're not thugs. We're not monkeys. We're not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball on the court and off the court. ... You may not like how we play the game, you may not like it -- that's the way we play. That's the way I coach. I'm not changing.
Bluder responded Saturday and said she did not mean anything by her "bar fight" comment.
"There was absolutely no ill intent," Bluder said. "I know coaches will take things and spin it to try to motivate their team. I've done that, I'm sure. So be it with that.
"Yeah, I really meant it as a compliment, like you are going to have to fight harder than you've ever fought in your life to get a defensive rebound against this team because they are so good. That's what my intent was."
Staley said Friday night that despite her team's loss, the Gamecocks will continue to play the way they have been.
"We found success in it, and maybe some days like today, we end up on the losing side of the stick. But guess what? We live to see another day. We live to see the comeback next year and try to do this again because I'm not changing."