South Carolina's women's basketball team finished 10-18 and won just two SEC games in Dawn Staley's first season as head coach in 2008.
But those days were all but forgotten as Staley sat down in front of a microphone Thursday afternoon in the Colonial Life Arena media room to recap USC's historic 2013-14 campaign and preview next season.
The Gamecocks posted a 29-5 record last season and collected the SEC regular-season championship, finishing 14-2 in conference play.
But the season's finish, a 65-58 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, left a bittersweet taste in Staley's mouth, one she's looking to replace next season.
"I'm talking to our team about going to the Final Four and winning the national championship," Staley said.
South Carolina finished the season ranked No. 8, marking the program's second top-10 finish and first since the 1979-80 season. The team's 29 wins were the second-most in school history (behind that 1979-80 team's 30), and its .853 winning percentage set a new program record.
The Gamecocks have increased their winning percentage - both in the SEC and overall - every season with Staley at the helm, and have now posted three straight seasons with 25 wins or more for the first time in program history.
But after three straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament - two of which ended in the Sweet 16 - the Gamecocks are still looking to get over the hump and break into the upper echelon of the women's college basketball landscape.
Staley said the Gamecocks had a few intense offseason practices before final exams began this week, and that she hopes the disappointment of finishing short of their goals will fuel them to come back even stronger next season.
"I think our players are driven to get better, and hopefully they'll come back more driven than ever and just wanting to achieve something that our program has never achieved," Staley said.
USC will lose just one player - Wilka Montout, a forward who started one game last season and averaged 1.5 points and 1.6 rebounds per game - from its talent-rich lineup. And the Gamecocks are adding five prospects that constitute the nation's No. 2 recruiting class, according to ESPN.com.
Four of those five - A'ja Wilson, Jatarie White, Bianca Cuevas and Kaydra Duckett - are five-star prospects, according to ESPN.com.
And White, Ceuvas and Wilson - the country's No. 1 recruit - are also McDonald's All-Americans.
Staley said she expects most of the team (with the exception of Wilson, who could be playing for Team USA) to report to practice by the second session of classes this summer, and that she's looking forward to seeing how they all stack up in practice.
Even with USC returning its entire starting lineup, Staley said the amount of talent on board will ensure "nobody will play be default."
"You're going to have to earn all of your playing time, and the time that you're out there, you're going to have to be productive," Staley said. "It's a good place to be."
Staley said USC's recent success and strong recruiting class won't change the way she makes her starting lineup. The players that play, she said, will be the ones that are doing the most to ensure the Gamecocks are hoisting the trophy next April.
"We're trying to win a national championship," Staley said. "That's the only thing I tell our players. I don't care what our starting lineup looks like."
Looking at the group she's returning and the new talent she's bringing in, it's hard for Staley not to be optimistic about next season.
"When you get so close, and when you feel like you can add some pieces that were missing to a team that was very, very good, you can almost feel a little step closer to getting it," Staley said. "It'll fuel you to wanting to work hard in the offseason and to make sure that if we ever get the opportunity to get back to that place, we can perform a lot better."
UPDATE ON MCCRAY. Assistant coach Nikki McCray had surgery yesterday, and Staley says "all looks well."
The surgery was planned as part of McCray's breast cancer treatment. Staley said she went to see McCray at the hospital before and after the surgery, and that McCray was upbeat and already talking about basketball.
"She's thinking about getting back healthy and helping us hopefully win a national championship next year, and I think that fuels her to want to get up out of that hospital bed and back into the office," Staley said. "She's doing extremely well."
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