DALLAS — As the victories mounted, 42 in a row across two seasons, Coach Dawn Staley acknowledged that while South Carolina did not feel pressure, exactly, it did sense the weight of expectation as it sought a second consecutive women’s N.C.A.A. basketball championship.
Going undefeated through the first 36 games of this season, Staley said, was “extremely hard” in an era of growing parity.
“You have to be levels above everybody else because you get everybody’s best effort every time you step on the floor,” Staley said. “And you can’t have any slippage.”
South Carolina never panicked in stressful moments during this N.C.A.A. tournament. But near the end of Friday’s national semifinal against Iowa, the resilient Gamecocks drew within 1 point with just over four minutes left, then flinched with three consecutive turnovers. And when the Hawkeyes star Caitlin Clark missed a 3-point attempt with 21 seconds remaining, it was Iowa, not South Carolina with its tall rebounders, that secured the ball with a 2-point lead.
When the buzzer sounded on the Hawkeyes’ stunning 77-73 victory, forward Aliyah Boston, the cornerstone of South Carolina’s success and the national player of the year during the 2021-22 season said, “It was kind of just an end of an era.”
For only the third time since the women’s N.C.A.A. tournament began in 1982, Sunday’s championship game between Iowa and Louisiana State will be absent a No. 1 seed.
American Airlines Center, which throbbed on Friday night with a sellout crowd of 19,288, has quickly developed as the site where the unexpected at the women’s Final Four has become the unforgettable.
On the same court, Mississippi State’s Morgan William, a 5-foot-5 inch point guard known as Itty-Bitty, ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak with a shot in overtime during a 2017 national semifinal. (Two days later, South Carolina won its first title there).
On Friday, it was Clark who delivered 41 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds and a triple-double of self-assurance as the consensus national player of the year. She hit five 3-pointers. She put her head down and elbow out and drove to the basket. She stretched South Carolina’s defense to vulnerability with sharp passes on the pick and roll. She helped the Hawkeyes pack the lane on defense and smother Boston in the low post.
Then Clark dribbled out the clock, tossed the ball into the air, raised her arm and put her hand to her ear, exhorting a roar from Iowa fans as another champion was dethroned. As the ball rose, so did the women’s game, seeming to take flight anew on a hopeful and assured trajectory.
“I think she’s the most phenomenal basketball player in America,” Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said of Clark. “I just don’t think there’s anybody like her in so many regards. Not only scoring but passing the ball, handling the ball. She had the ball in her hand almost all the time tonight. Then it’s her mentality, that’s what’s so special. She believes in herself. She believes in her teammates. She’s so confident but she put in the work in to deserve to have that confidence.”
South Carolina was as gracious in defeat as it had been in victory.
“She was everything that we saw on film,” Staley said of Clark.
But Staley and Boston also noted that their predominantly-Black team seemed to have been playing against two opponents this season — the rival teams and the Gamecocks’ reputation as bullies.
Sometimes the language veered into racism on social media, where South Carolina’s players were called inmates and thugs. In truth, the Gamecocks used their advantages in height and depth to play within the rules, not to subvert them.
On occasion, clumsy remarks about South Carolina extended even to opposing coaches. Before Friday’s semifinal, Bluder seemed to agree at a news conference with a characterization that someone had made to her that attempting to limit South Carolina’s voracious rebounding was akin to “going to a bar fight.”
Staley objected to that characterization after the game, saying, “We’re not bar fighters. We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball on the court and off the court. I do think that’s sometimes brought into the game. And it hurts.”
On Friday, Boston was frustrated by two fouls in the first quarter that forced her to the bench for the remainder of the half. Afterward, she said that with opposing teams, “there’s always the agenda of we are so physical; we can take the aggression. So I think that was being let go a lot.”
It is one reason, Staley said, that she would encourage Boston to skip her final season of college eligibility and go to the W.N.B.A., where she would likely be the No. 1 draft pick and would encounter less constricting defenses.
“There are defenses that are playing against her that won’t allow her to play her game,” Staley said of Boston. “It’s hard to officiate that. So I would tell her to go. She’s great. She’s ready to see single coverage.”
On Saturday, Boston declared her intention to play professionally and enter the W.N.B.A. draft. “I am truly breathless as I make the next best decision of my life,” she said on Twitter.
Despite Friday’s premature ending to South Carolina’s season, it has become clear how impactful Staley has been on college basketball, with her coaching and her voice for racial and gender equity. South Carolina will not immediately hang a third championship banner but, perhaps more significant, a statue of Staley — a Black woman — is planned across the street from the South Carolina statehouse, on whose grounds a Confederate battle flag flew for decades until 2015.
A statue in that location would be “monumental,” said Judge Clifton Newman, who gained widespread attention in presiding over the recent Alex Murdaugh murder trial and who regularly attends South Carolina games. It would be an acknowledgment, among other things, he said in an interview, of the change that has come to South Carolina and other Southern states with histories of racial intolerance.
“It’s not something anyone should allow to cause limitations in your aspirations or your ability to achieve,” Judge Newman said.
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