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How South Carolina built a women’s March Madness powerhouse after last year’s disappointment

Led by a trio of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Destanni Henderson, South Carolina is ready to be champs once again.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament - First Round-Howard at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a tale of two seasons for South Carolina.

The Gamecocks had a dominant 27-1 regular season but flamed out of the SEC tournament, losing to Kentucky. They had an impressive redemption win against Stanford, the team that knocked them out of the Final Four last year, then followed that game up with a loss to Mizzou. Even in this NCAA tournament, the Gamecocks had an impressive 79-21 victory against Howard, and followed it up with a lackluster 49-33 win.

If you're a doubter of South Carolina, you have plenty of talking points. If you're a believer in South Carolina, you have plenty of of evidence backing up your claim. It all comes to a head right now in the NCAA tournament, and we will have our answer soon enough. So far, given the quality of this team, the ability they've shown to persevere during difficult moments, and with the guidance of coach of the year candidate Dawn Staley, the No. 1 ranked Gamecocks are still the team to beat.

Highs And Lows

They say losing builds character. Going through challenges and fighting past adversity makes you more prepared to overcome it. The Gamecocks have had their fair share of adversity this year. It really began last season; they lost a heartbreaker to Stanford 66-65 in the Final Four.

This loss was a heartbreaker; the Gamecocks were just an Aliyah Boston tip-in away from winning that game and heading to the NCAA championship, putting themselves in position to potentially repeat next month. In the postgame presser, coach Dawn Staley had some wise words about her team and this moment.

"I am super proud of our players... every single time we've got a setback, we have gotten better. Unfortunately, this setback is an entire offseason, but we will get better. "

Better indeed. This season South Carolina improved to 31-2 and avenged its loss against Stanford, beating the Cardinals 65-61 in December. The game was another classic matchup. Stanford took control in the first half, but this time the Gamecocks rose to the challenge and came out with a dominant third quarter, outscoring Stanford 22-7, taking control of the game, and overcoming the 18-point deficit. The victory was a part of an impressive 12-0 start to the season when the Gamecocks beat teams such as Oregon, Maryland, NC State, and UConn. This start put away any doubt that South Carolina was a top contender this year.

However, the high quickly became a low, with the Gamecocks losing their next game against Missouri. It was a disappointing 70-69 overtime loss. The team shot poorly from the field (38.2 percent), poorer from three (28.6 percent), and lost against an unranked team that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament.

How did South Carolina respond to this embarrassing loss? By running the table through the rest of the regular season. The Gamecocks went on to win seventeen in a row. That winning streak took them to the SEC tournament championship game, where they faced Kentucky. Now that did result in a disappointing loss against the Wildcats, as South Carolina once again struggled to score, mustering up just seven points in the second quarter and seven points in the fourth. It seems like every time the Gamecocks are becoming the unanimous favorite, they have a setback that puts doubt in skeptic's minds.

Losing a game of this magnitude right before the NCAA tournament could devastate a team and set them up for an early exit. But just like Rocky Balboa, every time South Carolina gets hit, the team gets back up. The Gamecocks took this disappointment and turned it into a statement win against Howard, blowing the Bison out and holding them to a mind-boggling four points at the half.

South Carolina has a resiliency only disappointment and loss can foster. The toughness undoubtedly comes from their own Philadelphia-born and bred leader, coach Dawn Staley. She's turned the Gamecocks into a powerhouse and has helped build a roster that's deep from top to bottom.

A Complete Team

You don't have a team as good as South Carolina does without having some professional prospects on the roster. For the Gamecocks, that's Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Destanni Henderson. They are not only players who have bright futures past the collegiate game, but they are the heart and soul of this team. Henderson is shooting 38.6 percent from three and leading the team in assists. Zia Cooke averages 10.9 points per game, and Aliyah Boston leads the team in points and rebounds, averaging 16.4 and 12.1, respectively. This trio is at the top of its game, and containing them has become a near-impossible task.

This isn't just a team with stars; it's a team with a deep bench. They have All-American talent up and down the roster, including players like Destiny Littleton, a player who hasn't started a single game for South Carolina but is the team's spark plug. She comes in and automatically gives the team offense and tenacity. She's only averaging 10 minutes a game, but she stays ready and performs well when called upon.

Remember that game against Stanford? She didn't play in the first half but played virtually every minute of the second. She knocked down a couple of threes, grabbed some boards, and did the dirty work needed to get the win. You need stars like Boston to be a top team, but you need players like Littleton to go from contenders to champions.

The Gamecocks also have the most reliable defense in the country, ranked no. 1 in Division I in opponent points per 100 possessions. South Carolina set a new record for fewest points allowed in the first two NCAA tournament games, conceding only 54. In a single-elimination tournament when all types of wild things can happen, having a world-class defense is the best way to ensure you don’t leave the big dance early.

Job Not Finished

Despite all the ups and downs, South Carolina has its main goal still well within reach. The Gamecocks've been the number one ranked team all year long, and now they have to finish the job. The odds are stacked against every team, but given their three stars, a stacked bench, phenomenal coaching, and the adversity they've faced this season, I wouldn't bet against South Carolina. The team is heading towards being historically good, and every game they play from now on is must-watch TV. I suggest you don't miss it.