Undefeated South Carolina’s Dawn Staley still ‘worried every day’

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ALBANY, N.Y. — South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley has walked a fine line this season between instilling confidence in her players and being realistic about challenges the Gamecocks have faced after losing six key players — five of them starters — from last year.

Which is why, despite being undefeated and a victory away from the program’s fourth consecutive women’s Final Four appearance, Staley said Saturday, “I’m worried every day. Every day. Every single day. They’re still very young. They’ve had young moments. They’ve had mature moments. They’ve had questionable moments.

“But we sit here where we are. I don’t lose sight of not giving them the credit that they deserve being in this place. We’re a really good basketball team that can have some moments.”

South Carolina, 35-0 and the No. 1 overall seed, faces No. 3 seed Oregon State in the Albany 1 Regional final Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC) to secure a trip to Cleveland for the national semifinals. It would be the sixth Final Four appearance for the Gamecocks, all under Staley. They won the national championship in 2017 and 2022 and were favored to do that again last season as they entered the NCAA tournament undefeated.

A national semifinal loss to Iowa ended that quest, and most of the team’s experienced players moved on, including WNBA No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston. After being ranked No. 6 in the 2023-24 preseason Associated Press poll, South Carolina went to No. 1 after the first week of the regular season and has been there since.

Still, the Gamecocks have had close calls in March. They needed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat Tennessee 74-73 in the SEC tournament semifinals March 9. A 3-pointer with a minute left Friday in Albany helped them secure a 79-75 Sweet 16 victory over Indiana, after nearly losing a 22-point lead.

“Indiana is a seasoned basketball team. I was afraid of the experience that they were bringing into the game,” Staley said Saturday. “We were fortunate enough to just get out to a big lead and a cushion, so to speak. Our team, sometimes when we have a cushion like that, we can take it to another level, we can open it up to 30 and 40. Or we can lose it and take it down to 10 or lose a lead.”

Staley said this team’s personality is different than last season’s and that can have it pluses and minuses.

“But again, they’re never fazed by it,” Staley said. “We called it this — even our coaches were like, ‘Are you drinking the Kool-Aid?’ A lot of times we’re saying we’re sipping but we’re not going to take a full gulp, as to how good this team is.”

Oregon State is attempting to make the women’s Final Four for the second time in program history, previously doing so in 2016. The Beavers upset No. 2 seed Notre Dame on Friday and had 12 games against ranked teams in Pac-12 play. So the Beavers are prepared. But they see the Gamecocks as their biggest challenge yet.

“It would make sense that it is,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. “Our conference was a beast this year. But … this is the No. 1 ranked team in the country. This is an undefeated team that’s survived every battle, every test so far. We’re looking to be the first team to beat them. As you look at them, they’re undefeated for a reason. There’s not a lot of weakness out there.”

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