MINNEAPOLIS — South Carolina has been ranked No. 1, non-stop, for five months. He posted some of the best statistics in the country. Aliyah Boston has won just about every award there is, and coach Dawn Staley has also received a handsome one.
And none of that will mean much unless the Gamecocks cut the nets on Sunday night.
“At the end of the day, we are going to be judged by championships. That’s the thing most people remember,” Staley said ahead of the Final Four. “Do we feel the pressure to win? Yeah, because we’re a pretty good basketball team. We are here.
“Won’t winning define who we are and what we are capable of achieving?” No.”
Not in the overall measure of Staley and the lives of his players, no. For this small slice of it, however, what they do in the NCAA Tournament title game will determine their narrative. Are they among the best teams of all time? If not the start of the next dynasty, at least the start of a new era in college basketball?
Or do they become yet another team known for what they didn’t do? The brilliance of a season eclipsed for eternity by a game?
“We’re not done yet. We still have unfinished business,” Destanni Henderson said after South Carolina tore down Louisville 72-59 Friday night in a game that, in the end, looked even more lopsided than the scoreline indicated.
“Just lock up more and do what we have to do to see it through.”
What South Carolina has done this season is a direct result of what it didn’t do last season, losing to Stanford in the Final Four after Brea Beal and Boston missed shots in the final five seconds. .
Boston has been completely dominant all season, its double-double on Friday night the 29th of the year. Her 23 points against Louisville included her first 3-pointer since February, and she also had 18 rebounds. But one of his most impactful plays was an assist.
Facing a triple team under the basket, she returned the ball to Beal, who scored on a lay-up to give South Carolina a 34-28 halftime lead. Louisville would never come close to the rest of the game.
South Carolina’s defense was stifling, especially Beal’s coverage of Haley Van Lith. Beal locked her up so well that Van Lith didn’t score her first field goal until 1:43 remained in the second quarter, and she finished with just nine points.
The Gamecocks have held all but two opponents since January below 60 points.
“Last year we lost in the Final Four. That’s the bump we had to get over,” said Boston, the winner of all Major Player of the Year awards. “We got over that tonight. .”
South Carolina now faces UConn, who held off Stanford to reach their 12th national title game. UConn has never played in a championship game it didn’t win, a streak that began in 1995, at this same building.
Despite that record, the pressure won’t be on UConn on Sunday night. There have been so many injuries to so many key players that just getting this far should count as a success.
CONTINUED:South Carolina rolls Louisville behind Aliyah Boston and advances to national title game
WINNERS, LOSERS:UConn Seniors Make Their First Title Match; missing offense
“Hopefully (on Sunday) we can just worry about beating South Carolina and not be fighting so much,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They’re going to be unbeatable as they are.”
And if UConn does, it will be as much about what South Carolina didn’t do as what UConn did.
It’s tough, the ruthless expectations there are for greatness. The better an athlete or team performs, the more is demanded. Career highs become the bare minimum, extraordinary performances are the norm. Earn an MVP title or award, and the pursuit of another begins immediately.
As unfair as it may seem, it will be the same with South Carolina. You can’t be as consistent, as unflappable, as clinically ruthless as the Gamecocks have been all season and not win it all.
“The last team standing on Sunday evening is a divine order. I really believe it,” Staley said Thursday. “So if it’s not us, it’s not us. We’ll have another chance when it’s our turn.
He felt all season like it was South Carolina’s turn. All that remains is to finish it.
Follow USA TODAY sports columnist Nancy Armor on Twitter @nrarmour.