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Dawn Staley and South Carolina face tough task: ‘Try to top last year’

Dawn Staley cuts down the net South Carolina's Elite Eight win against Maryland. (MCKENZIE LANGE/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Dawn Staley and South Carolina are headed back to the Final Four, one year after winning it all, and for the third year in a row.

The No. 1 seed Gamecocks beat No. 2 seed Maryland 86-75 on Monday to secure their spot. They will face off against Iowa on Friday with a shot at the national championship on the line.

South Carolina has been here before. Yet as the Gamecocks make the trip to Dallas, they do so still undefeated, a rare feat — and a new one for their team. There’s a chance, once they get there, to do something special. And Staley knows it.

“I mean, this team has been to three consecutive Final Fours. I think they separate themselves from any other team that we’ve been a part of,” she said. “This team is undefeated.”

The pressure of surpassing their own past success looms.

“The bar is set pretty high for us to continue to do what we’ve done, and that’s the challenge of it each and every year, to try to top last year,” Staley said

Still, Staley knows the hard work her team has put into this season to get them to this point. And she knows there is a bit of luck that goes into it as well. 

“I mean, you’ve got to get a little lucky, and you’ve got to get some players that really believe in it and that are unified, that really see honestly the bigger picture,” she said. “That is rare nowadays because a lot of times young people only see themselves and what they want to accomplish.

“But when you get a combination of players who want those things, individual things, but they see the overarching — the big picture, and this group of players — we’ve been very lucky at South Carolina where we got groups of players that basically clump together and want to play together to do some special things.”

Even for Aliyah Boston, who has been awarded practically every accolade there is in college basketball, the weight of making three Final Fours isn’t lost.

“Not a lot of teams can say they’re able to do this,” Boston said after Monday’s win. “So for us to be able to do it feels really good, and it’s such a blessing we won’t ever take for granted.”

Boston and her teammates, including Brea Beal, have felt the highest of highs. They’ve also been at the lowest of lows. That’s what’s led them to this point. It’s what has enabled them to win.

“I think for me personally, I know what it feels like to lose. I know what it feels like to be sent home. So every game that we played this season, we played with that feeling on our mind, on our chest. Really going into any game we play, we don’t want that feeling,” Beal said.

And while a third straight Final Four is something to celebrate, the job isn’t done.

“I just hope that we’re able to win a National Championship because they’ve done it the right way,” said Staley, “and they’re just exemplary of what you want every student-athlete to be.”