For the first time in history, the South Carolina Gamecocks are National Champions in Women’s basketball.
Led by the hall of famer Dawn Staley, the all around skill of the Lady Gamecocks in addition to A’ja Wilson, and the stimulating play of Alisha Gray and Kaela Davis, the Gamecocks were able to fend off the Mississippi State Bulldogs with a remarkable 12 point lead. The score was 67-55.
“This team has played with so much heart, through so much adversity,” says A’ja Wilson. “To finally achieve a huge goal of ours is an amazing feeling.”
The road to the National Championship was not an easy one for the Women Gamecocks. For starters, they lost one of their best players and All-SEC team member Alaina Coates at the start of the SEC tournament.
“It’s tough losing a player like Alaina Coates because she was a big part of us.” Wilson said.
The injury to Coates forced other players such as Kaela Davis and Alisha Gray to take their games to another level, which along with the leadership and skill of A’ja Wilson, propelled the Gamecocks past several teams, including Florida State and Stanford to get to the big dance against the Bulldogs.
Although they came into the game flying high, the game did not get off to the start the Gamecocks wanted. Mississippi State jumped to a 7-1 lead in the first quarter, as the Gamecocks struggled to make anything from the field.
The Gamecocks trailed until the end of the first quarter when they made a basket to take a 16-14 lead. They would extend that lead to 18-14 just as the first quarter ended.
In the second quarter, the Gamecocks stifling defense forced MSU to have a five minute scoring drought which lifted the Gamecocks to a 36-26 halftime lead.
A’ja Wilson and Alisha Gray were the leading scorers for the Gamecocks with 11 points a piece. Guards Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Ty Harris played excellent defense on Morgan William, who hit the “shot heard around the world” Friday night to beat the four time National Champion UCONN Huskies.
But unfortunately for the Gamecocks, the bulldogs did not go quietly into the dark night.
MSU went on a 9-0 run to start the third quarter, cutting the Gamecocks lead to five. But, like she did the entire tournament, Kaela Davis nailed a jumper to end the third quarter, giving the Gamecocks an eight point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Following Davis’s jumper, MSU went on another run to start the fourth quarter, cutting the Gamecocks lead to four with just under 7 minutes left in the game.
But once again, the Gamecocks dynamic duo of A’ja Wilson and Alisha Gray hit back to back baskets to give the Gamecocks an eight point lead, which they never surrendered.
Wilson hit three straight baskets near the game’s end to give the Gamecocks a 14 point lead. With as early as two minutes left in the game, the Gamecock players and coaches started to celebrate their first National Championship in program history.
For head coach Dawn Staley, this was a long and awaited experience. She had been to three straight final fours as a player at Virginia but failed to win a National Championship.
At South Carolina, she coached the Gamecocks to two of the last three final fours and now she is finally able to bask in the glory of being a National Champion.
“I really can’t put into words how much it meant to win this for coach.” Wilson said. “It really means something special to bring this back home for such a great person like Coach Staley.” “I never gave up on winning a National Championship no matter how hard it was.” Staley said. “I can check off one of the things that have been a void in my career.”
Staley and Wilson also gave praise to Alaina Coates, who was unable to travel with the team.
“We got you a ring Alaina.” Staley said at the game’s end.
The Gamecocks will be returning to Columbia, South Carolina on Monday afternoon and there will be a parade held for them and the Men’s Basketball team at Colonial Life Arena at 8 PM.
Pictures courtesy of Gamecock Women’s Basketball