March Madness: Just 4 wins from a perfect season, Dawn Staley and South Carolina aren't getting complacent

ALBANY, N.Y. — Dawn Staley questioned if No. 1 overall seed South Carolina was playing its best basketball heading into and during the SEC tournament earlier this month.

“We weren’t just clicking on both sides of the basketball,” Staley said Thursday ahead of the Sweet 16 at MVP Arena. “There were spurts of it, but when we had a little bit of time to practice between the SEC tournament championship and then our first round, we did a lot of rest, but then when we got back from our break, we just really honed in.”

The only undefeated squad in the country (34-0) locked in after two weeks off to the tune of a 99-point winning margin over their first two games of the tournament. No. 4 Indiana (26-5) and star forward Mackenzie Holmes will be a tougher task. The last time the two met was the 2019 Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.

Staley remembers that game vividly and recently looked back at the box score. The Gamecocks were outscored, 20-6, in the final quarter. It was their only loss of the season and they were in position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament until it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following year, South Carolina lost at the last second in the Final Four. In 2022, it won its second national championship in program history.

It is well on its way to a third with a second-best offense (86.3 ppg), top-ranked defense (55.4 ppg) and crushing 30.9 ppg winning margin. In only six games has an opponent finished within single digits. Six other teams were crushed by at least 50. They roll out such a well-balanced squad that Indiana head coach Teri Moren said she prepared for the Gamecocks as if they have 10 starters.

“As I said to our kids, I think, yes, we're the underdog, but I think everybody else except for South Carolina right now is the underdog because of their perfect record,” Moren said. “I don't know that anybody believes that South Carolina can be beat.”

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, right, and guard Raven Johnson (25) continue their quest for a perfect season on Friday in a Sweet 16 matchup against Indiana. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

The Hoosiers have the first crack at toppling Goliath when the sides meet Friday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN. No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Oregon State play in the first Albany 1 regional semifinal (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Albany 2 regional continues play on Saturday.

South Carolina could become the fifth school to go undefeated in a season, joining Texas, UConn, Tennessee and Baylor. It would be the 10th time in NCAA DI women’s basketball history, which goes back to 1982, that a team finishes the schedule undefeated.

“They have zero idea. They have short memories,” Staley said of her team’s recognition of history. “They only deal with the present, which is pretty cool. You don't have to talk them off of a ledge because their thinking is going to be an easy thing. They take one game at a time.”

It’s a rather inexperienced group after graduating all five starters, including 2022 Naismith Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. Te-Hina Paopao, a guard transfer from Oregon, and Kamilla Cardoso, a potential lottery pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, are the senior leaders.

Staley noticed after the SEC tournament, in which South Carolina survived a close call from Tennessee followed by a tight game with LSU, that players were a little too loose and might have thought it was going to be easy from then on out.

“My energy spoke to, we’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing,” Staley said. “And the main thing right now is our next opponent.

“Right now Indiana is the only team that matters at this point because the margin of victory is so small at this stage of the game. This team really doesn't know that. They know it from playing in the SEC and coming to some near losses. But they don't know it on this scale in the NCAA tournament. So I just want to keep them focused on what's right in front of us.”

COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - MARCH 24: MiLaysia Fulwiley #12 of the South Carolina Gamecocks laughs with teammate Raven Johnson #25 during the second round of the 2024 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament held at Colonial Life Arena on March 24, 2024 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Tim Cowie/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
South Carolina coasted through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, winning by a combined 99 points. (Photo by Tim Cowie/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)


No. 1 South Carolina (34-0) vs. No. 4 Indiana (26-5)
Last meeting: 2019, Indiana won, 71-57 (Paradise Jam)

South Carolina: Six players averaged at least 9.5 ppg this year, led by Cardoso (13.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley (12.2 ppg). Raven Johnson (4.8 apg, 2.1 spg) and Paopao (11.2 ppg, 3.8 apg) run things in the backcourt.

What Moren said about limiting the 6-foot-7 Cardoso:
“You're not going to keep her from scoring. She's too talented for that, and this is too good of a basketball team. They intentionally find ways to get her the ball. I think you have to try to do your work early and try to keep her away from the rim as well as you can, but I also think it requires help from others, whether that's doubling, digging, just trying to crowd her as well as we can.”

Indiana: The Hoosiers' 79.6 ppg average ranks 14th in DI, but its defense is middle of the pack thanks to the high-scoring Big Ten. Fifth-year seniors Holmes (20 ppg, 6.8 rpg), a 6-3 former All-American, and guard Sara Scalia (16.4 ppg) power the offense.

What Staley said about Holmes: "Holmes is one that she does her damage in the paint. If we can get her to take some 15-footers, we're doing our job. But we know that 90 to 95 percent of what she's going to do is work us over in the paint. Our positioning is going to be great [and] have to be great in order to contain her, and then their perimeter players have the ability to shoot the ball. They're one of the most efficient teams offensively in the country, so we need to disrupt, we need to make them play a little bit faster than they want to play, and our defense definitely has to show up.”

No. 2 Notre Dame (28-6) vs. No. 3 Oregon State (26-7)
Last meeting: 2021, Notre Dame won, 64-62

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish are playing short-handed due to a plethora of injuries this season, including to their point guard Olivia Miles. Hannah Hidalgo (22.9 ppg, 5.6 apg, 4.6 spg) runs the show for the ACC tournament champions and leads the big three alongside Sonia Citron (17.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.8 apg) and Maddy Westbeld (14.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg).

What Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck said about Hidalgo:
“[She’s] such a dynamic player. She impacts the game in so many ways. Her pace and her speed is special. Her skill set is special. Her ability to score is special, and her ability to disrupt defensively is special.

"She's gotten the keys to the team. She plays with that confidence and that swagger that she has the green light. So give [Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey] a ton of credit for building her up like that. We've seen players like [Jaylyn] Sherrod from Colorado. I say they're somewhat similar in their overall impact and their ability to just go make plays even outside of the system maybe at the time.”

Oregon State: The Beavers play a clean turnover game and run through double-double machine Raegan Beers (17.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Talia von Oelhoffen runs the offense (4.9 apg). They are one of the nation’s best at hitting 3s and score 32.9% of their points (ranking 63rd) behind the arc.

What Irish head coach Niele Ivey said about Oregon State:
“I think for us it's just managing their physicality, their size, but also their ability to shoot from the 3-point line. We're going to be very strategic tomorrow trying to attack the things that they have defensively, but also finding ways to contain their posts and rebounds. It's going to be a really tough task, but I'm excited.”