Staley’s Final Four team stands tall among USC’s best

USC’s first title in the final College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in 201.

The South Carolina women’s basketball squad that finished this past season in the Final Four isn’t just the best in the history of that program — it’s on the short list of the greatest Gamecocks sports teams of all time.

It’s difficult to argue with the results. The 34-3 record turned in by head coach Dawn Staley’s team this season makes for a winning percentage of .918, which if it isn’t the best recorded by any USC sports team of the modern era, it’s certainly close. Success in the regular season and success in the postseason don’t always go together — just ask former men’s basketball coach Eddie Fogler — but this year the Gamecocks women managed both, compiling a school-record win total, a regular-season SEC co-championship, a first SEC tournament title and a first trip to the Final Four.

At a school that boasts just three team national championships, a resume like that certainly vaults to near the top of the list. And it earns a secure place within a ranking of South Carolina’s top 10 greatest athletic teams, which to no one’s surprise begins with a trip to Omaha.

The second of USC’s back-to-back national titles was a steamroll through the NCAA playoffs that ended with a perfect 5-0 record in the College World Series. Out of 10 postseason games, only three were close. It didn’t quite have the magic of the Gamecocks’ first title run at beloved Rosenblatt Stadium a year earlier, but it also left no doubt as to which USC team was the greatest of all time.

The improbable comeback over Oklahoma, the two wins over Clemson, Whit Merrifield’s 11th-inning single against UCLA rolling into right field and into history — USC’s first baseball title, in the final College World Series played at Rosenblatt Stadium, was the stuff of legend. That it came after a scratch-and-claw climb out of the loser’s bracket made it all the more special.

Twelve weeks as the No. 1-ranked team in the country. A national-best average of 12,500 fans per home game. SEC regular-season and tournament championships, the best record in the program’s history, and a trip to the Final Four. Staley didn’t just build a winning program — she created a phenomenon, and in all likelihood this past season was just the beginning.

It didn’t include a win over Georgia or an SEC East title. But the greatest season in South Carolina football history did feature the miracle at Missouri, a school-record fifth consecutive victory over Clemson, and a program-best final national ranking of fourth. Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney were the pillars of Steve Spurrier’s third straight 11-2 squad, which set the bar for teams to come.

The greatest USC team to not win a national championship was coach Bobby Richardson’s squad, which went 51-6-1 and finished second to Texas in the College World Series. A former Yankees star and USC’s first full-time baseball coach, Richardson’s team won 29 of 31 games at one point behind All-American pitcher Earl Bass and first baseman Hank Small, but fell 5-1 in the national title game.

USC’s first team national championship was secured in Baton Rouge, La., after the Gamecocks posted a meet record in the 4x400 meter relay to clinch the title in women’s outdoor track. South Carolina won by 10 points, and was led by two runners who would go on to medal in the Olympics. Aleen Bailey won a gold in Athens in 2004, while Lashinda Demus won a silver in London in 2012.

Frank McGuire had many strong basketball teams at USC, but his 1970-71 squad stands out for winning the program’s lone ACC title. Kevin Joyce’s tip to Tom Owens off a jump ball produced the winning score in a 52-51 victory over North Carolina in the tournament final, the crowning moment in a 23-6 season that ended disappointingly with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Pennsylvania.

USC generated more Omaha magic in its third straight trip to the College World Series finals, climbing out of the loser’s bracket through grit and guile just as it had two years earlier. This time, though, the story had a different ending as Arizona swept the Gamecocks for the title. But that 2012 season still included 49 victories and two over Clemson in the NCAA regionals, suffering only in comparison to the two years before.

Other teams finished with better records, other teams had more talented rosters. But no USC football team holds mythical sway over Gamecocks faithful like the 1984 squad, which burst out of obscurity to climb within one win of playing for the national championship. It didn’t happen, of course — oh, that Navy game — but fond memories of Black Magic, the Fire Ants and that first 10-win season still remain.

Head coach Mark Berson enjoyed a tremendous run in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Gamecocks reached at least the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 nine times in a span of 13 seasons. The best of those squads was the 1993 outfit, which went 16-4-4 and reached the national championship game, where USC was denied the school’s first title in a 2-0 loss to Virginia.

Football, 2012 — Marcus Lattimore runs wild, and Clowney delivers The Hit in the second of Spurrier’s three straight 11-win seasons.

Baseball, 2002 — Ray Tanner’s first Omaha team drops a then one-game final to Texas.

Football, 2010 — USC beats No. 1 Alabama and wins the program’s only SEC East title.

Men’s basketball, 1996 — USC sweeps Kentucky to win its first SEC title, then loses in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Coppin State.

Football, 1987 — The most talented team of the pre-Spurrier era comes within 20 points of an unbeaten regular season.