Gamecocks leave Final Four with no shortage of talent, motivation for next season

Dawn Staley's South Carolina women's basketball team finished with a school-best 34-3 record and made the program's first trip to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

TAMPA, Fla. — As South Carolina tried to claw back from yet another a double-digit deficit, Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson traded baskets like they were the only two USC players on the court. Over a nine-minute span, they were the lone Gamecocks to score against Notre Dame in the women’s Final Four, combining for 16 consecutive points. It wasn’t just a rally — it was also a glimpse at next season.

Sunday’s 66-65 loss to the Irish in the national semifinals was a painful ending to the best season in USC women’s basketball history, a 34-3 campaign that netted a first Final Four banner for Colonial Life Arena. But it also laid the groundwork for more to come, particularly given that the Gamecocks are set to replace two departing inside starters with Coates and Wilson, who along with All-American Tiffany Mitchell promise to comprise a trio as strong as any in the nation.

And they’ll take plenty of motivation from Sunday’s game, which Notre Dame won thanks to a putback from reserve Madison Cable off a blocked shot with 19 seconds left. Mitchell’s attempt at a game-winner bounced off the side of the backboard as the final horn sounded.

“We had a lot of firsts for our program. They had a very memorable year,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “And I want us to enjoy the year, but I also want us to have a certain hunger, a certain bad taste in our mouth from experiencing and being so close to competing for a national championship that it will fuel us to be better individually, to be better collectively so we can get back to this point.”

South Carolina loses Goose Creek product and three-year captain Aleighsa Welch, by every measure the heart and soul of this USC team, who is now likely bound for a future in the WNBA. Starting center Elem Ibiam, who played just four minutes Sunday, also departs, as does junior college transfer and reserve guard Olivia Gaines. Welch and Ibiam have been part of four consecutive NCAA Tournament trips, something not seen at USC since Nancy Wilson’s teams made four straight from 1988-91.

“It’s truly hard. They leave a big void in our program. They won a lot,” Staley said. “But what’s great about the senior class that’s leaving us is, they’re leaving us with a legacy of leadership. They didn’t come in as the best leaders in the world, but they leave as probably one of the best leaders, one of the best class of leaders that we’ve had come through our program. So I think our players have taken note to how they led our basketball team. And if they’re half the leaders that Elem and Olivia and Aleighsa were to our basketball team, our program is in a great place.”

That leadership mantle now falls to rising seniors like Mitchell, the two-time SEC Player of the Year, and returnees like guards Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier, with younger players like rising junior Coates and rising sophomore Wilson taking on larger roles.

“It’s tough to see that shot go up and 0:00 on the clock, and you didn’t get that win,” Wilson said. “But we’re going to learn from it, and we’re going to grow from it, and we’re going to keep going at it. We’re just going to pick up kind of where our seniors left off. They left a great path for us to go on. We had a great year. A legendary year. I think we’re a walking history book. We’re going to take it and learn from it and grow from it.”

In the immediate aftermath, though, that long-term outlook wasn’t easy to take. As the final horn sounded and Notre Dame players celebrated their advancement into Tuesday’s national championship game against Connecticut, the emotion on the USC side was evident. Welch covered her face with her jersey, while Mitchell slumped to the court near where she had released the Gamecocks’ 21-foot last gasp. In the USC locker room afterward, there was no shortage of tears.

Staley could relate. USC’s coach went to the Final Four three times as a player at Virginia, each time coming up short of the national title, despite once being named the event’s most outstanding player in a losing effort. At some point, the Gamecocks will be able to look back with warm memories on all they accomplished this season — but it’s going to take getting past the sting of losing in the national semifinals first.

“It takes a while until you get back, until you get back to a place where you can at least compete for it and taste it a little bit,” Staley said. “But I’m glad our players got a chance to experience this — so they can get in the gym and work hard, so they become better students of the game, so if we ever get to this point again, we’re going to have different results.”