Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks Win Sixth SEC Tournament Title
By Lovianna Blackwell
So much has changed in the year since the South Carolina Gamecocks last won the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, but they still managed to leave this year’s tournament the same way they left last year.
“I have an appreciation for the little things… and I have a sense of love because our players got a chance to express themselves playing the very thing they love,” said head coach Dawn Staley in a news conference before heading into the tournament.
Winning a second consecutive SEC Championship — and six of the last seven — is no “little thing” to appreciate. The SEC is the toughest conference in women’s basketball this year, with six teams ranked nationally ahead of the tournament.
The SEC Championship game on Sunday was the first time both head coaches in the SEC tournament final were Black women. Staley faced off with Georgia head coach Joni Taylor, who earned conference coach of the year honors this season.
“We are mirroring what the rest of the country can look like when you give Black women the opportunity to head some programs,” Staley said of the historic moment.
The two teams lived up to the moment with a back-and-forth duel where neither team could ever feel comfortable with their lead. Georgia is a veteran team with four Senior starters and a deep bench, and Taylor’s squad is known for their defensive intensity. But South Carolina’s star underclassman stepped up.
Sophomore Aliyah Boston had the best performance of the game, and arguably one of the best of her career, putting up 27 total points and grabbing 10 rebounds for her 15th double-double of the season. Boston was an obvious choice for the SEC Tournament MVP, but she gave the credit to her team.
“My teammates really just did a great job of putting me in the positions to be able to score and get blocks,” Boston said.
It was a team effort through and through for the Gamecocks. They made clean passes and moved the ball well, which was enough to get South Carolina its sixth SEC Championship title.
The Gamecocks had a few hiccups towards the end of the regular season, losing its last game and the regular season title to Texas A&M. Coming into the season with high expectations, the team had a lot to prove as they went into the tournament as the second seed in the conference.
Staley admitted that the team took a lot of hits and they needed to work on being more aggressive. She is teaching her team the importance of being deliberate, something she emphasized throughout the weekend.
“We gotta square up. If they hit, we gotta hit back,” Staley said. “I don’t really like to promise, but I’m gonna promise you that we’re gonna look like a different offensive basketball team.”
It was a promise made and a promise kept. Throughout the tournament, the team looked eager to show how deliberate they could be on offense.
The first 15 minutes of their first matchup, against Alabama, were the strongest for South Carolina’s offense, which kept the margin wide throughout the night. Ahead 42-26 at the end of the first half, the Gamecocks were at a good spot for the remainder of their time on the court, and ended up scoring 75 points — their highest game total for the tournament.
Inside points were crucial in the Alabama game, and Coach Staley credited her team for their ball movement.
“We were deliberate in what we were trying to accomplish,” Staley said after the game on Friday.
The stakes were even higher in the semifinals against Tennessee on Saturday night. The Gamecocks fell to the Lady Vols in Knoxville just two weeks earlier. Tennessee has won the most SEC Championships, so they had just as much pressure on them as the Gamecocks did as the defending champions. That pressure seemed to stay with both teams throughout, with a lot of back and forth.
After a tough battle, South Carolina came out on top 67-52, and Staley said she was proud of her team’s growth. “I liked the grit that we played with tonight.”
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