SAN ANTONIO — It’s a rule of basketball, more stringent than over-and-back and double-dribbling, that a season that ends in the Final Four can’t be disappointing. Getting to the final weekend, by expectation or miracle, earns a lifetime membership in the Legends club.
So why does South Carolina’s 2020-21 season feel disappointing?
Certainly a one-point loss in the Final Four can cause that. Stanford beat the Gamecocks 66-65 on April 2.
Certainly the way USC lost can cause that, too. Destanni Henderson knocked down a lead-taking 3-pointer with 39 seconds to play, only to see Stanford’s Haley Jones come up with a loose ball through a crowd of Gamecocks hands and hit her own lead-taking jumper seven seconds later. Then USC got a steal with five seconds to go, had a layup bounce out with four seconds to go, a putback come out with two seconds to go and the tears start to flow with no seconds to go.
The Gamecocks won 27 games. Another SEC Tournament, their preposterous sixth in seven years. Were twice ranked No. 1. Did it all through a trying offseason and season where COVID and social justice initiatives were as much a part of their daily lives as tying their sneakers.
That isn’t disappointing. Far from it.
It only feels that way because from the moment the pandemic ended last year’s pursuit of a championship, and goodness were the Gamecocks looking really strong to win one, the focus was always on this year. It’s hard to get to a Final Four, but USC’s legion of fans knew this year’s would be a mere formality, on the way to raise the trophy COVID claimed last season.
They did get to the Final Four, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as it was projected to be. It took many people many weeks to realize that while this team was still vastly talented and that talent would be enough to win most every game it played, it wasn’t last year’s team.
That team, it’s becoming tragic to understand, is destined to be one of the biggest “What-ifs?” in USC history. Who knows if the Gamecocks will ever again have that magic combination of young and old, wise and headstrong, although next year’s team with a mix of a No. 1 recruiting class now in its junior year and a No. 1 recruiting class of freshmen will be intriguing.
It took a while for everyone to get their head around the fact that this team couldn’t be judged by last year’s result. These Gamecocks don’t have a floor leader, a voice they can rally behind. They don’t have the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that gives them that extra push in a tight game.
None of that mattered against Stanford. USC lost because of a lot of things, but since it came down to one shot meaning a win or loss, it was a missed layup in a season full of missed layups. That was the Gamecocks’ biggest problem all year.
“We’re inches from competing for a national championship on Sunday. That is the margin of error that you need to practice with,” coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s unfortunate that this setback will be an entire offseason, but we will get better. We will get better. We can arm ourselves with what we need to reverse us losing basketball games in this moment, in the way that we did.”
Looking ahead, USC returns everyone except Lele Grissett, and even she could elect to come back since she has a free year (the extent of her injury may play into that decision). The Gamecocks have scholarship room to do that, even with the four newcomers.
Talent won’t be a problem, but they’ll have to start looking at how best to work in the freshmen. Could some be good enough to start right away over a lineup that’s basically remained the same over two seasons?
The Gamecocks need to tighten up at point guard, and they need to get more motion into their offense. Layups and free throws are critical.
Mostly, they’ll have to concentrate on how they want to approach next season. This year was all about continuing last year, to get what that team was robbed of. It carried them to the final weekend.
But they didn’t finish, and that meant disappointment after a remarkable season. It’s an amazing situation to feel that a Final Four season, because it didn’t end in a title, is disappointing. That’s where USC is as a program.
Do they want to put themselves through another season where a national title is the goal, thus leaving the possibility of a bad bounce leaving them disappointed again?
Or is there a way to balance the goal with the recognition of appreciating every step it takes to get there?