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Mike Klocke | The Record | March 28, 2017

South Carolina fighting to join NCAA women's basketball elite

  The Gamecocks are heading back to the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.

STOCKTON, Calif. -- The word "elite" is tossed around with abandon in sports.

The definition is fluid, with different people applying varying parameters.

What is elite?

Does it mean championships?

Team personality, history and aura?

Or something completely different?

This discussion is especially difficult in women's college basketball since one team -- Connecticut -- so thoroughly dominates the landscape.

But for a variety of reasons, let's put South Carolina into the elite conversation after the Gamecocks' 71-64 victory over Florida State on Monday night in the Stockton Regional final.

Women's Final Four: South Carolina holds off FSU | Bracket

Up next for the Gamecocks: a second Final Four berth in three years. South Carolina will face Stanford on Friday in Dallas.

"They already have a lot of elements of an elite program," said LaChina Robinson, ESPN's color analyst for the regional. "But if you earn two Final Four berths in three years ... Well, maybe they're more elite than everyone thinks they are."

That's a difficult club to break into in women's basketball. UConn has won four consecutive national championships and six the last eight.

Since the turn of the century, Coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies have taken 10 of 17 national crowns. Total domination.

The level below UConn is rather defined with Tennessee, Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford and a few other schools in the discussion.

While the Gamecocks lack a national title, they have elements that are hastening their elite climb.

South Carolina has a Hall of Fame coach. Dawn Staley "is" women's basketball in many ways. All-American player at Virginia. Three time Olympic player, and the U.S. flag carrier in the opening ceremonies. WNBA star. The next American Olympic coach.

South Carolina has an unmatched fan following. The Gamecocks not only have led the nation in attendance the last few years, but they've done so by a large margin.

South Carolina has a dynamic style of play. Speed, physicality and athleticism are all in abundance and, ultimately, that's what will be needed to challenge UConn's greatness.

The Gamecocks also are flat-out winners. They're averaging more than 30 wins per year over the past five seasons.

"Dawn's team started a lot of this at the SEC level, winning four straight league championships and winning conference tournaments," Robinson said. "And they were doing it against Tennessee. Any time you're in the conversation because you're beating the Lady Vols, then you have to be on a very high level."

Staley likely will have to defeat two coaching legends and mentors -- Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and UConn's Auriemma -- to win a national title. Talk about an "elite" challenge.

"You want to coach against the best, and you're talking about people who have won national championships and Olympic gold medals," Staley said. "You get to this stage, to the top tier, and you're going to face great coaches and great teams."

But first, she's anxious to return to Columbia, South Carolina, and soak in the atmosphere of a university with women's and men's Final Four teams.

"I've been there nine years and Frank (Martin) has been there five years, and there are a lot of challenges we've gone through," Staley said. "And our fans deserve this. They have stuck with us even when we faced tough times.

"We have belief and we have togetherness. There's a lot of love on our campus right now."

This article is written by Mike Klocke from The Record, Stockton, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

 

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