Starting Five: 5 Thoughts on South Carolina’s national championship victory

Photo Credit: Akiem Bailum

If it was not apparent already, it is now that there is a new epicenter of the women’s college basketball landscape.

For a while that landscape was Knoxville, Tennessee. Then that nucleus became Storrs, Connecticut. April 3, 2022 made it completely obvious that Columbia, South Carolina is now that new epicenter – and any road to a championship goes through the Palmetto State’s capital city and its flagship university.

Dawn Staley and South Carolina proved many a bracket maker correct that night when it defeated UConn at this year’s national championship matchup at Target Center in Minneapolis. The Gamecocks have now won two national championships – both during the Staley era with the last occurring when A’ja Wilson, who now has a statue of herself outside Colonial Life Arena, took the women’s hoops world by storm in 2017.

And on the UConn side – while Paige Bueckers was hoping to win a national championship in her return to her home state, the Gamecocks were not having any of the fairy tale.

Here are our five takeaways from what was a historic evening in the Twin Cities.

Dawn of a new era

There was once an era where Pat Summitt ran college basketball. And, yes, there was even one where Geno Auriemma ran the women’s hoops landscape. That vacuum has officially been filled by the Philadelphia native that is Dawn Staley.

Gamecocks women’s basketball was not much to speak of. Lately, Gamecocks athletics have not been much to speak of outside of women’s hoops with football, men’s basketball and even baseball going through growing pains.

The women’s basketball program is the heartbeat of UofSC. There is a reason why Staley landed a contract ($2.5 million in 2021-22, $3.5 million for 2027-28, over $22 million overall) that earns her more than football’s Shane Beamer).

Manifesting one’s Destanni

One would have figured that a South Carolina-UConn matchup would have been another edition of the Aliyah Boston show given the matchup problem the Huskies faced in defending the future WNBA lottery pick.

Instead, it was Destanni Henderson, in her final game wearing Gamecocks garnet and black, who concluded her college career with a bang. She tallied a career-high 26 points to lead South Carolina to the promised land.

Henderson is currently a projected second round pick in this year’s draft to the Los Angeles Sparks per Lines. One has to think her stock is most definitely on the rise.

All for Aliyah

Not that Boston was left out of the party by any means. She did what she does best – notch another double-double as she scored 11 points and brought down 16 rebounds.

The feeling of winning a national championship had to be even sweeter for Boston given the Gamecocks came so close in last year’s Final Four.

With a national championship added to her resume, it bolsters Boston’s positioning for the 2023 WNBA draft where she is almost certain to be the top selection next season. The only question remains if she gets drafted to either the Indiana Fever or Atlanta Dream.

Black Excellence

One thing remains true about Staley – she recognizes the significance of what she is doing as a Black woman coach in a space that has been historically dominated by white men.

That is one major reason why so many in the Black community have rallied around her and her team. It is the classic “When we win, we all win” mentality that unites communities of color.

Staley has become the first Black Division I coach to win multiple championships. And not only that, she has done so by being unapologetically Black – and by defeating UConn’s Geno Auriemma in the process.

Columbia

There are few cities around the country that have embraced women’s basketball the way Columbia has. Its status as a women’s basketball hotbed was already solidified with how the Fams sell out Colonial Life Arena for every Gamecocks home game.

It has been more solidified after South Carolina’s win. In addition, the state is one rich in basketball talent – including two incoming top-tier recruits Staley landed in Talaysia Cooper from East Clarendon and Ashlyn Watkins, who won four state championships at Cardinal Newman.

Soda City is not disappearing from women’s hoops anytime soon. If anything, Columbia is just getting started.

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