Why Dawn Staley is surprised at South Carolina women's basketball's perfect regular season

COLUMBIA — Even after the buzzer sounded on South Carolina women’s basketball’s second-straight undefeated season, coach Dawn Staley said she isn’t sure how it happened.

The No. 1 Gamecocks held off a comeback attempt to beat Tennessee 76-68 at Colonial Life Arena, battling to a win Sunday using their competitive nature that Staley called vital to the team’s success.

“I am super proud of them,” she said. “If you compare the undefeated season from last year to this year, there’s so much different and yet we end up in the same place.”

After losing most of its roster and all of its starters, South Carolina (29-0, 16-0 SEC) rolled into 2023-24 by hitting the reset button.

These Gamecocks entered with little experience at all and nearly no experience starting at Colonial Life Arena. Only sophomore guard Raven Johnson had started for South Carolina, and she had done it only three times.

To do what this team did is all the more unexpected within the context of its early season. Back in June, Staley contemplated retirement because of the state of the team.

That same locker room vibe, however, has gone from the bane of the coaching staff to a major reason the team plays loose and wins games.

“I’ll probably equate it to a doctorate program — and they’re gonna get me for saying this — and day care,” Staley said. “There’s so much talking about nothing. At the beginning of the season, we’d say to be quiet, but now it’s really who they are.”

On Sunday, the Lady Vols (17-11, 10-6) battled South Carolina for the second time this year and cut their deficit to three points in the fourth quarter. Senior center Kamilla Cardoso answered when Tennessee got close, however, scoring four points in a row to keep the lead and secure the win.

“It’s a great basketball team we played against,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “They just don’t have a lot of deficiencies. They can guard, they can score, they can rebound. They have a lot of players that can make plays. We knew it was a tough challenge.”

Tennessee tested South Carolina more than any other team to come into Colonial Life Arena this season. The Lady Vols were the lone team to make it a single-digit game on the Gamecocks’ home court.

It’s a testament to just how hard it has been to beat South Carolina at home, which nobody has done since 2020.

“They’re a super competitive group,” Staley said. “They don’t really like losing. They can play a lot of different styles of play, especially offensively.”

Despite rising outside expectations as the undefeated regular season became closer to reality, senior guard Te-Hina Paopao didn’t feel mounting pressure toward the end of the year.

“We just go out there and play our game knowing who we are and that we’re going to get the dub at the end of the day,” Paopao said. “It’s no pressure at all. We just love to play with each other.”

Instead, the Gamecocks were focused on moving forward as they headed toward the SEC tournament. South Carolina’s perfect regular season wasn’t the goal.

“Everyone’s on the same page, which is the job’s not done yet,” freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley said. “After every win, we get ready for the next one.”

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South Carolina now has to convert regular-season success to the postseason, when the pressure ramps up and losing has more repercussions. Staley said she doesn’t believe her team is a lock to win every game, and it still has things to prove.

“When you win 29 games, you think those are the habits you create,” she said. “They’re still a very young group and the postseason is a lot different than the regular season.”

South Carolina will play its first game of the SEC tournament Friday (noon ET, SEC Network) against the winner of No. 8 seed Mississippi State and No. 9 seed Texas A&M (noon ET, Thursday, SEC Network) at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: How South Carolina basketball pulled off undefeated regular season