WBB: Top ten moments of the season
We should be getting ready to start the women’s tournament today, but obviously that is no longer happening. We need something to fill the void, so let’s take a look back at the top ten moments of the season.
It wasn’t easy narrowing it down to ten, or deciding what order to put them in. How hard was it? My list has a pair of NCAA records coming in at eight and nine. That’s quite a season.
Without further ado…
10. Destanni Henderson’s steal against Florida
I can’t describe it. You have to watch it:
And look at the score. That wasn’t a game on the line play, it wasn’t against a big-time opponent and a big crowd, it came in the middle of a blowout in front of 1,512 people in a mostly empty gym, streamed on SEC Network+. That was the intensity and urgency the Gamecocks played with all season and it’s why they finished as the consensus number one team.
9. Aliyah Boston’s triple-double
It’s easy to forget now, but Aliyah Boston was the least known of South Carolina's freshman class. Zia Cooke had the viral videos, Brea Beal had the awards, Laeticia Amihere was already on campus, and Olivia Thompson was a local. But Boston was a bit of a mystery, the kid from a smallish school in Massachusetts. That lasted about 34 minutes into the season.
She had 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Dawn Staley left Boston in the game to start the fourth quarter, giving her a shot at the triple-double, and she recorded the tenth block as Staley sent Elysa Wesolek to the scorers table to replace Boston. It was the seventh triple-double in program history, and tied the program record for blocks, set by Alaina Coates, who had the previous triple-double. Boston became the first player in NCAA history to record a triple-double in her first game. We didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect it was the first sign that this team wasn’t just good, it was great, and they would continue to do incredible things all year.
8. Ole Miss and the (near) shutout
Yes, there was actually an SEC game, in the year 2020, when one team held the other to two points in an entire half. It still seems impossible, and it was another game when the Gamecocks weren’t just going after program records, but NCAA records, because they were that good. They tied the record for fewest points in a half, and Ole Miss’ only basket came with 57 second left in the half.
After the game, Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said that playing South Carolina felt the same as when she used to play UConn, and there was an intimidation factor that makes it feel like you are down 20 before the game even starts. The comparison was timely, coming ten days before South Carolina hosted Connecticut.
7. Beat Baylor
Not too many people saw this game, but it was the springboard. Played on rivalry Saturday, in the Virgin Islands, streaming only, it got lost in the shuffle. Baylor had blown out South Carolina twice last season, physically dominating the Gamecocks. But behind Boston and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who admitted before leaving the mainland they wanted revenge, South Carolina bullied Baylor. Boston had 20 points and 13 rebounds, and South Carolina was plus-14 on the glass. South Carolina outscored Baylor 23-11 in the fourth quarter to turn a nail-biter into an easy win. For good measure, South Carolina had to win by 15 to claim the Paradise Jam title, so they did. A sluggish win at Temple followed, but the Gamecocks had found their stride in the Islands, playing and winning with style and swagger.
6. Teddy bear toss
It started when someone on Twitter asked Dawn Staley if they could do a teddy bear toss. By halftime of the game against Duke, it had evolved into a friendly competition among multiple schools, including the Blue Devils, and 2,046 teddy bears (and dogs and llamas and bunnies and at least one triceratops) were collected.
“It was coming from every angle, so many bears,” Zia Cooke said. “It was like home and like Christmas.”
Staley often talks about making an impact in the community, and this was it. Some of the bears went back to Durham with Duke, some were handed out by players at local hospitals. There were so many that they were still handing them out during the SEC tournament.
5. Staley unleashes “Mad KiKi”
I don’t remember exactly how the mad KiKi thing started. I know we had been talking about Mikiah Herbert Harrigan playing better when she got angry on Twitter and in game threads well before it blew up. I found a reference to it all the way back against Maryland.
At first we usually made “Hulk” references - “You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.” She wasn’t “Mad KiKi” until January 24. That was when Staley said, “She likes to play comfortably, until she gets mad. So I’m probably going to get her mad at me at some point so we can bring that part out of her.”
Thus, “Mad KiKi” was born. It wasn’t just about funny faces and the memes, it was Staley and Herbert Harrigan understanding each other and Herbert Harrigan feeling comfortable with her emotions on the court.
4. Down goes UConn
It’s hard to decide where to place this one. There were more important games on the schedule, and bigger wins, but this was still UConn. It ended up being a showcase for women’s basketball and South Carolina.
As I wrote at the time, there are “sellouts” and there are sellouts. This was the real thing. At halftime I was chatting with a member of the security staff. Combined, we’ve probably worked over 500 men’s and women’s games at Colonial Life Arena dating back to the Dave Odom era. We both agreed we had never seen the building that full.
The atmosphere was electric from start to finish, and the team’s performance matched it. The national anthem, performed by a saxophonist, turned into a call to arms, and when he flashed the spurs up sign and held the final note the crowd erupted with so much intensity you wondered how they could sustain it to tipoff, let alone through the game. But they did, even hanging around long after the final buzzer to celebrate.
After the game, Geno Auriemma downplayed the atmosphere, rightfully pointing out that UConn had played sellout crowds here before and won easily. But, he added, “The crowd and who their players are (...) You put all that together in one mix - not good.”
3. Kentucky and Kool-Aid
South Carolina was riding high after dominant wins over South Dakota and Duke heading into SEC play. Kentucky and Rhyne Howard would be a whole different challenge, most of us thought at the time. Instead, Brea Beal and the South Carolina defense harassed Kentucky all game, and the Gamecocks displayed a new gear they hadn’t shown yet, winning a 99-72 rout that wasn’t even that close. The Gamecocks were bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, and more skilled, and they were a team that was relentlessly attacking.
After the game, Staley said, “I was talking to (assistant coach) Jolette (Law) on the bench, and I said I’m not going to drink the Kool Aid,” Staley said. “I tell our team when they play well. I tell our team that when we’re locked in we can probably beat anybody in the country. When we’re not… I coach from when we’re not. I coach on that edge of it not being perfect basketball and try to penetrate them with that. I don’t want their heads to get too big, but I also want them to be confident in what we’re doing.”
Thus began months of answering questions about Kool-Aid, with Staley eventually promising to pass out cups of Kool-Aid in New Orleans at the Final Four. Sadly, we’ll never know if she would have followed through.
2. Zia Cooke’s interception
For all of her spectacular offensive plays (and the ensuing flex that never failed to make Tyasha Harris start laughing), the biggest play of Zia Cooke’s freshman season came on defense. The first game against Mississippi State was billed as the game of the year in the SEC (by me), and it didn’t disappoint. The Bulldogs led by nine early in the fourth quarter, but the Gamecocks came back with a 12-2 run. Down 79-76, Tyasha Harris scored five straight points to put the gamecocks up 81-79, but they still needed one more stop. The Gamecocks had the inbounds play well-defended, and Aliyah Matharu tried to lob a pass to JaMya Mingo-Young. Cooke jumped in front of Mingo-Young for the interception.
“It took me back to football, moving my feet. I knew where she wanted to go with the ball and once I heard her say lob it up I just had to go get it,” Cooke said. Her only thought after she got the ball was to dribble out the clock. That led to one of my favorite pictures of the season, taken by Chris Gillespie:
1. SEC Sweep
The rematch against Mississippi State wasn’t close. KiKi got Mad. Boston cleaned the glass. Ty ran the show. And there was this, one of the prettiest basketball plays you will see at any level:
South Carolina clinched its second perfect 19-0 SEC season sweep (there’s only one other, by Tennessee). They won their fifth tournament title in six years, a streak no other program can match. It wasn’t supposed to be the end of the season. It was supposed to be a prelude to another celebration in Greenville in three weeks. But it turned out to be the last time the team was together, and at least it ended with this: