Nov. 25, 2020. That's the first day DI basketball teams can start the season and the day the No. 1-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team resumes unfinished business.
The Gamecocks will be back after dominating last season with a 32-1 record, holding the nation's longest winning streak and securing an SEC title. The spread of the coronavirus left unanswered the question of if the Gamecocks could have taken their season all the way to an NCAA championship.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley describes the team's current mentality as "ultra-competitors." The 2020 Naismith Coach of the Year said the Gamecocks are ready to pick up where they left off.
“They've been locked in,” Staley told NCAA.com "It doesn't mean that they've been perfect, but it's not at the expense of them not trying. This team is eager to get back on the court and have competition other than themselves."
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The Gamecocks will move forward in the 2020-21 season without their two senior leaders — Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. Bringing in the No. 1 2019 recruiting class last season, South Carolina had three dominant starting freshmen who will return as experienced sophomores — Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal.
Boston, a sophomore forward, became the South Carolina women's basketball program's first National Freshman of the year from ESPN, WBCA and USBWA. She was also named to the All-America Second Team. Boston had a huge presence in the paint and set the all-time record for offensive rebounds in an SEC game (10). The SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year also owns South Carolina's record of most blocked shots (10) and second most rebounds (25) in a game. In Boston's first season, she averaged 12.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg and 86 blocks.
Staley told me that sophomore guard Zia Cooke is one of the most athletic players she's coached in her 12 years at South Carolina. Cooke set South Carolina's record in most games started by a freshman (33) while averaging 12 points. She was also named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.
Sophomore guard Brea Beal — who could play in a number of positions — tied with Cooke for the most games started by a freshman. SHe averaged 6 points and 5.4 boards a game.
Staley said the former seniors left a legacy of leadership for this young group.
"Luckily, we don't have to worry about chemistry," she said. "This team has been together since last March. And I know we lost two key figures in our championship run, but they know what it feels like now. They played in the SEC, which I think is the best conference in the country for an entire season and an entire post season as far as what the SEC has to offer, so they are ready. I want them to experience an NCAA tournament, because that's really the fun part of the season."
South Carolina won 26 consecutive games and was undefeated in the SEC (16-0) last season. Staley considers her team a a national title contender.
“We know what it is to be overlooked," Staley said. "We know what it is to be under-respected. We can only control what we can control. If the narrative isn't South Carolina being the best team, we've been there before, so we're not going to give that any energy. We're going to create the narrative. Hopefully, we create the narrative by what we did last year. Just win, win, win. And when you do that, eventually the decision makers of women's basketball will eventually have to come to Columbia, South Carolina, and talk about our team if we continue that path of success."