Women's college basketball winners and losers: How South Carolina built up incredible support

LSU's Angel Reese moves the ball against South Carolina's Aliyah Boston during the first quarter of their top-five matchup at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 12, 2023. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Dawn Staley took over at South Carolina when a couple thousand fans would come out to Colonial Life Arena in Columbia for women’s basketball games.

To be fair, the team went 14-15 in that 2008-09 season and went 7-9 in SEC play. They hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in the previous five seasons dating back to 2002-03, and that two-year stretch of appearances had snapped a 10-year skid. A perennial power, or even one in the making, this program was not.

That time seems like a long time ago after hearing, seeing and feeling (even through a TV) the roars of a sold-out 18,000-proud crowd Sunday for the SEC’s first top-five matchup since 1993. It was everything a matchup of that heightened caliber should have been and refreshing given it was hours before the Super Bowl.

The 2 p.m. ET tip proved perfect for fans to both watch their women’s basketball team and still partake in Super Bowl party festivities. And the photos and videos once again show pushing information and content around women’s basketball is not some practice in equality. The sport is growing, and growing, and growing. Maybe multiple millions don’t care yet, but enough millions do.

Staley and South Carolina are the most notable story of growth and the focus it took to do it. When Staley was hired, the program and basketball communications director Diana Koval opted to hold regular media availabilities (with lunch) whether one reporter showed up or 10. They worked to share their players and program’s stories with one-on-one interviews and the program still provides perks to beat reporters traveling to better their story, and thereby provide further insight for the “Fams,” as fans in Columbia are called.

Build it, and they will come. Tell the story, and they will seek more.

South Carolina led all NCAA Division I programs in attendance in 2021-22 with an average of 12,286 per game, its eighth straight season atop the pack. That’s more than four times as many as the 2,793 they averaged in 2009. And it bests the 8,892 UConn averaged last season, a fair comparison as the Huskies are the standard-bearer in women’s hoops. (Iowa State sat between them at third averaging 9,567 fans.)

South Carolina is averaging 12,898 this season and had its eighth sellout in program history for LSU. It has sold out at least one game a year since 2016 (excluding the 2020-21 season with fan caps due to COVID-19). Staley said afterward she “never envisioned what the crowd looked like” and credited the fans for supporting the program the way a national champ would, before it was a national champion.

Much like their No. 1 ranking and title hopes, other programs across the country are coming for the attendance record as sellouts and packed houses become more of a norm.

Loser: Most players going in on Cameron Brink

It’s tough to go in against Stanford junior Cameron Brink, as Arizona fifth-year 6-foot-2 forward Cate Reese knows well. Reese was reacquainted with it on Thursday night when Brink broke her own program record for blocks.

Brink has 93 and counting this season, breaking the record of 91 the prior season. She had 88 as a freshman. Her numbers have been strongest against Pac-12 competition with 10 against Oregon, seven against UCLA, and six each against Oregon State and Colorado.

The NCAA Division I record is arguably untouchable. Brittney Griner blocked 223 shots at Baylor in 2010, averaging a record 6.4 per game. She had 748 over her career. Brink is averaging a career-high 3.54 blocks per game, ranking second behind Saint Louis’ Brooke Flowers (4.11).

Loser: LSU’s flat start ends it

The first few minutes of LSU’s loss to South Carolina showed why it is so important to play good competition — and even better if it's on the road — in preparation for a deep run into March.

“The worst thing you can do on the road is to allow the home team to start from the tip, and we did,” LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said. “The tone for the whole game was set on the jump ball.”

Staley noted that the “energy in the building” helped, as well as playing in front of 16,000 a week ago in Connecticut. The fans made it difficult for LSU with supportive noise as well as pregame boos.

The Tigers came out flat and quickly fell behind to their largest deficit of the season amid a harsh environment for the road team. It was an 18-2 South Carolina lead within five minutes, a terrible offensive slog to start and a hole any team would have a tough time escaping. Not exactly where you want to be for the first time against the No. 1 team in the country that’s gunning for a repeat title. To have had experience in that would be helpful.

Yes, South Carolina is currently in a class above the rest. This group of seniors, led by reigning National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, is 120-8 over their collegiate careers. That includes a 57-3 mark in SEC play, two of two available trips to the Final Four, a national championship and a No. 1 ranking in 2020 that could have led to the title if the NCAA tournament had not been canceled because of COVID-19. They are the powerhouse.

Yet, UConn competed with this team until the end. Stanford did as well, taking the Gamecocks to overtime in November and nearly upsetting them if not for their own miscues at the end. UCLA and Mississippi State also came within single digits. LSU could not, and Sunday, it was in large part because the Tigers almost immediately gave the national champs 16 points to preserve until the end. South Carolina, with the experience of doing so, did.

LSU guard Jasmine Carson shoots against South Carolina guard Brea Beal during their game on Feb. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
LSU and Jasmine Carson got off to a slow start and never recovered against South Carolina and Brea Beal on Sunday. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Winner: Watch out for Illinois in March

Illinois continues to impress so much so that every game they play against the top of the Big Ten standings is an upset watch.

The Fighting Illini (19-7, 9-6 Big Ten) went up 37-28 at halftime against Maryland (21-5, 12-3). It was the Terps who came out of the locker room hot, turning Illinois over 10 times and outscoring them, 31-8, in the 10 minutes to go up, 59-45, for the final 10. Diamond Miller led the top-10 Terps with 31 points, tied with her output against Notre Dame and one short of her season high against Baylor.

Illinois has already doubled its wins from last season when it went 7-20. The last time the program won double-digit games was 2019-20 (11-19). But you have to go back to 2012-13 for its last winning season (19-14). Its performance is up around the board as all major season summary categories at Her Hoop Stats are in the 85th percentile or higher (except its defensive rating and pace, both 57%). It’s the first season without any stats in the bottom-third percentile since 2014-15.

The Illini's scoring is up 19% and defensively they’re allowing 12% fewer points. Their net rating nearly flipped from -13.6 to 17.3. They have wins against everyone below them in the Big Ten as well as against Iowa in January and Michigan State. Playing within the conference as well as they have will only make them better and a more difficult out in March.

Loser: NC State is middling

UConn’s 22-point blowout of NC State in November was a shrug. The Wolfpack were not the experienced group of last season and needed to work on chemistry with so many transfers and changes. It was early.

It is now late, and the Wolfpack are having a tough time. They’ve lost three of their last four and sit eighth in a wildly competitive ACC. But two of their last four losses are unacceptable for a team fitting of the top end of the conference. They lost to Georgia Tech (12-13, 3-11) and Virginia (15-11, 4-11) as well as Boston College (14-14, 4-11) in early January. The trio are three of the four worst in conference play, all above basement-dweller Pittsburgh (9-16, 2-12). NC State hosts the Panthers at home in the finale.

NC State has a signature win against Iowa that looks decent, but otherwise it’s been middle of the pack at best and in the ACC, that might not be enough. But if the trend continues, the Wolfpack will have a low seed and won’t be making it far in the tournament. Not when you shoot 29.3%, which they did in the 71-59 loss to Virginia on Sunday.

Taylor Valladay scored 22 points with 8 rebounds and 7 assists for the Cavaliers. Jada Boyd matched it with 22 points as the only Wolfpack player to hit better than 40% on at least four attempts (she was 9-of-19). Diamond Johnson was 1-of-12, including missing all eight 3-pointers.

Must-watch games of the week

Indiana (23-1, 13-1 Big Ten) at Ohio State (21-4, 10-4), 7 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network — Indiana’s only hiccup is a loss to Michigan State and the Hoosiers defeated Ohio State by 13 last month. Indiana wants to hold onto the conference lead, while Ohio State is currently tied with Michigan in fourth place.

UConn (22-4, 14-1 Big East) at Villanova (22-4, 13-2), 2:30 p.m. ET on SNY — The two leaders in the Big East standings, and a battle featuring Maddy Siegrist against UConn’s bigs. The Huskies won the last meeting by five in their fourth-lowest point total of the season.

More games to watch

Texas (20-6, 11-2 Big 12) at Iowa State (15-7, 7-5), 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Duke (22-3, 12-2 ACC) at Virginia Tech (20-4, 10-4), 7 p.m. ET on ACCNX
Louisville (19-8, 10-4 ACC) at Notre Dame (20-4, 11-3), 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
North Carolina (18-7, 9-5 ACC) at NC State (17-8, 7-7), 8 pm. ET on ACCN
Michigan (20-5, 10-4 Big Ten) at Indiana (23-1, 13-1), 8:30 p.m. ET on BTN

Utah (22-2, 12-2 Pac-12) at Arizona (19-6, 9-5), 9 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Networks

Iowa State (15-7, 7-5 Big 12) at Baylor (16-8, 7-5), 6 p.m. ET on Big12/ESPN+

Colorado (20-5, 11-3 Pac-12) at Arizona (19-6, 9-5), 2 p.m. ET on Pac-12 Networks
NC State (17-7, 7-7 ACC) at Virginia Tech (20-4, 10-4), 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2

AP Top 25 Poll (as of Feb. 13)

  1. South Carolina (25-0)

  2. Indiana (23-1)

  3. Stanford (24-3)

  4. Utah (22-2)

  5. LSU (23-1)

  6. UConn (22-4)

  7. Iowa (20-5)

  8. Maryland (21-5)

  9. Duke (22-3)

  10. Notre Dame (20-4)

  11. Virginia Tech (20-4)

  12. Michigan (20-5)

  13. Ohio State (21-4)

  14. Villanova (22-4)

  15. Oklahoma (20-4)

  16. UCLA (20-6)

  17. Texas (20-6)

  18. Arizona (19-6)

  19. North Carolina (18-7)

  20. Gonzaga (23-3)

  21. Colorado (20-5)

  22. Iowa State (15-7)

  23. UNLV (24-2)

  24. Florida State (20-7)

  25. USC (19-6)