Last year’s loss in the Final Four “rocked” Dawn Staley.

South Carolina women’s basketball’s undefeated season ended with a loss to Iowa, which also ended the college careers of the iconic “Freshies” class.

It shook Staley, whose team was one game away from a chance to win back-to-back NCAA titles.

“Last year rocked me. It rocked me,” she said Sunday. “It rocked me because we had a team full of players who did all the right things.”

The “Freshies,” led by former star forward Aliyah Boston, never gave Staley any issues. They saw their first NCAA tournament canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.



They lost in the 2021 Final Four on Boston’s devastating missed putback. They won the national championship in 2022 and led the Gamecocks to a third straight Final Four in 2023.

“Then they carried the heavy load of trying to go back to back, and it didn’t end that way. But they gave every single thing,” Staley said of last season.

“If you could have been around that particular group of young ladies, you’d want them to win. We don’t know why, and we often try to ask God why. Why? Today I stand here as our why.”

South Carolina women's basketball roster 2023-24: Dawn Staley's team

A year later, the undefeated No. 1 seed Gamecocks (36-0) are going back to the Final Four for the fourth straight season after beating No. 3 seed Oregon State 70-58 on Sunday at MVP Arena in Albany, New York.



They will face No. 3 seed NC State (31-6) — winner of Regional 4 in Portland, Oregon — on Friday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland.

There was palpable joy among the South Carolina players as they dumped confetti on Staley during her postgame interview with ESPN. She was full of pride in her team, which she said beat the odds. The Gamecocks weren’t supposed to make it back to the Final Four. And yet here they were, punching their ticket to Cleveland.

“I think God has a funny way of dealing with people, and I’m one of his, and for us to lose the way we lost last year and for him to bring us to this point today makes me believe a little bit deeper,” Staley said.

“I know that when you’re at your worst and your weakest moments, he’s at his best, and he started working on that the day that that buzzer sounded last year during this time.”

Mar 31, 2024; Albany, NY, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley speaks to her players on the court during the first half against the Oregon State Beavers in the finals of the Albany Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at MVP Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports


South Carolina is in a similar position as last season, undefeated after winning both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. It has the chance to be the first team since UConn in 2016 to go undefeated and win the national championship.

But this year’s team couldn’t be more different than last season’s. The depth is its greatest advantage — freshman Tessa Johnson led South Carolina in scoring against Oregon State with 15 points off the bench.

It also plays free, without the pressure last year’s team felt, but the players also are serious about their game.

“So I give into allowing them to be their silly selves — like they’re really silly. They talk a lot about nothing. But some of that talk is holding each other accountable,” Staley said.


“They talk to each other in some of the most unadulterated ways that we’ve got to close the door and just kind of give them their space. But they enjoy each other. That’s who they are.”