Even with South Carolina’s back against the wall, it doesn’t sweat. It just wins … and dances

ALBANY, N.Y. — South Carolina was up 17, but it probably wouldn’t have changed anything even if the Gamecocks had been up by only 2, because the “Macarena” was blaring through the arena’s stereo system and center Kamilla Cardoso just couldn’t help herself.

She put her right hand out and her left hand out, flipped each upside down and started the dance while laughing and making eye contact with guard Raven Johnson.

Before long, Johnson and junior guard Bree Hall had joined the pseudo-dance party while the South Carolina players waited for the second half of their Sweet 16 game to start.

Even with South Carolina’s back against the wall, it doesn’t sweat. It just wins … and dances

If there were ever a capsule of this team, perhaps this was it: joyful and loose, skilled and disciplined, driven and … dancing?

At the beginning of March, weeks before the Gamecocks punched their ticket to the Elite Eight with a 79-75 win over Indiana, coach Dawn Staley had lightheartedly contrasted the differences between her current undefeated team’s vibe and the squad that played the majority of minutes for South Carolina for the previous four years.

That class, known best as “The Freshies,” went 129-9 over four years in Columbia, advanced to three Final Fours and won one national title. But, Staley explained, that group was a good bit different from her current team.

“I would probably equate it to a doctorate program, and they’re going to get me for saying this,” Staley said with a chuckle, “and daycare.”

But even so, this group — daycare or not — has largely gotten the same results that have become the standard in Columbia. The Gamecocks ended the 2023-24 regular season undefeated for the second straight season.

They won the SEC regular-season title for the third consecutive year and then marched to the conference tournament title for the second year in a row. They earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament as the overwhelming favorite.

The results have remained the same, but everyone inside the program will acknowledge that the results are the only thing that hasn’t changed.

“The shift has been something else,” Hall said. “It has been a lot more (relaxed). It’s very youthful. … You don’t always have to have your white coat on and be in the graduate program all the time. You can just joke around all day with our team. However, when it is time to play, we are super locked in.”

The Gamecocks’ opponents wouldn’t disagree. Throughout the season, there has been a lurking inevitability about them. They’re too good on both ends of the floor. They have too many weapons, too much depth.

Their legs are too fresh. They’ve become a pick-your-poison problem between their inside game and perimeter shooters.

But even with all those qualities and attributes, it’s this ability to stay loose and focused that has helped them weather the hardest parts of the season.

In their top-10 matchup in Baton Rouge, La., the first time the Gamecocks were truly tested during the SEC slate, no one flinched when the Tigers controlled the first half.

NCAA Women's Tournament live updates: Schedule, start times, bracket and  matchups - The Athletic

During the SEC tournament semifinals when South Carolina trailed Tennessee by 2 with a second remaining, no one stressed when the ball ultimately landed in the hands of Cardoso for a 3-point attempt.

And Friday night, when the Hoosiers just refused to go away in the Sweet 16 and kept making runs, South Carolina’s steadiness never wavered. In the first quarter when the Gamecocks endured a three-minute stretch of going 0-for-5 from the floor and turned the ball over three times, they were relaxed.

In the second quarter when they strung together multiple empty offensive possessions, they were loose.

In the second half, as Indiana kept knocking down 3s and cut South Carolina’s 22-point lead to just 4 points, Staley wasn’t thrilled, but there wasn’t a callback to the doctoral era of this program.

😂 Cardoso Does The Macarena With Raven Johnson | NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, South Carolina vs Indiana:

There was just a reminder of who this team is now. It is elite on its own terms, undefeated in its own right. What the Gamecocks have made of this season is uniquely theirs largely because of the personalities in their locker room.

Open locker room questions … and other distractions 😆😆😆#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/5jksJcf0u6

— South Carolina Women’s Basketball (@GamecockWBB) March 24, 2024

Thursday, Staley had said that this season’s team has made her “uncomfortably comfortable with how they approach the game,” but there was nothing about her or the coaching staff or the bench that looked uncomfortable as the minutes ticked down Friday and their season hung in the balance.

When South Carolina was faced with an inbounds possession that could have been the separator between itself and Indiana, Staley felt at ease as the ball ended up in the hands of Johnson (even though she wasn’t the first option).

From the right 3-point wing, and with the Gamecocks up just 2 points with under a minute remaining, Johnson lined up for a triple to give South Carolina a two-possession lead.

“I saw Raven’s eyes when it was coming down the stretch,” Staley said. “I knew she wasn’t going to let us lose.”

But for anyone watching South Carolina, its inevitability is as much in its eyes as in its demeanor. It’s in the Gamecocks’ dance moves, in their bench celebrations.

Call it a daycare, but if it is one, it’s a daycare where the waitlist is years long because everyone wants their kid to attend, wants their kids to know whatever those kids know.

This season, South Carolina’s offense rivals its long-established defensive identity.

There is no easy way to beat the Gamecocks, and potentially, no way at all. But their secret is pretty obvious: South Carolina is loose. It’s playing free. The basketball is beautiful, and the players are so clearly having a ball — and a dance party.

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