no. 1 South Carolina loaded, chasing 2nd straight NCAA title

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COLUMBIA, SC — No. 1 South Carolina has a sweeter and much more satisfying motivation to go after an NCAA championship after winning the title a season ago.

The Gamecocks want to feel the falling confetti once more before a veteran squad that includes consensus player of the year Aliyah Boston, dynamic Zia Cooke and defensive stopper Brea Beal wraps up its stay on campus.

“Our goal was to win four of them,” Cooke said of the NCAA title. “The fact that we only won one, I think that makes us a little more hungry.”

Cooke and the Gamecocks’ top-ranked recruiting class of 2019 came oh-so-close to their championship-a-year goals. They were ranked No. 1, SEC Tournament champions and on a 26-game win streak when the 2020 tourney was canceled because of the pandemic.

The next season, South Carolina reached the Final Four before missing two last-second chances to advance in a 66-65 loss to eventual winner Stanford.

Cooke, Boston and Beal all had a hard edge, coach Dawn Staley said, to finally finish with a trophy, which they did in Minneapolis last April with dominating Final Four wins over Louisville and UConn.

“They put the work behind it,” she said. “And we’re the only team that can say we’re going to go back-to-back and that’s our goal.”

Staley said her players have returned with a similar focus and the confidence that comes from reaching the mountaintop.

“It’s all pressure, it’s just a different type of pressure,” Staley said. “When you’re one of the best teams in the country, that brings pressure. When you’re one of the best teams in the country and you lose in the Final Four, it motivates you every day.”

South Carolina coaches have plenty of help with seven seniors or juniors who’ve spent years learning Staley’s way. Boston said they will get on younger players who need to pick up their practice pace or can’t get the hang of a defensive set.

“We all have to be ready for what’s ahead and what we want to accomplish,” Boston said.

Aliyah Boston, named a preseason AP All-American again this fall, had a busy and celebratory offseason, including a day all her own (June 4) in her native US Virgin Islands. There was a parade in the capital of Charlotte Amalie and a ceremony afterward. “It’s fun,” she said. “But it was time to get back to work.”

Several players from the national championship team decided to leave soon after the parade in downtown Columbia. Sophomore Eniya Russell transferred to Maryland and freshman Saniya Rivers, part of the Gamecocks’ 2021 top-ranked recruiting class, left for North Carolina State. Two-year guard Destiny Littleton moved on to Southern Cal. Destanni Henderson, who had 26 points in the title game win over UConn, was a first-round WNBA draft pick.

With so much experience back, Staley and the Gamecocks didn’t have much room to add. South Carolina signed five-star recruits in 6-foot-3 forward Ashlyn Watkins and 6-foot guard Talaysia Cooper, both ranked among the top 18 college prospects by ESPN.com. Staley also added Georgia Tech transfer guard Kierra Fletcher, a four-year starter for the Yellow Jackets who’s coming off a foot injury.

South Carolina’s postseason road won’t leave the state until the Final Four. It starts in Greenville, about two hours from campus, for the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks are likely to be a top-four seed, meaning they’ll play their first two NCAA games at home. The Sweet 16 has been reduced to two sites instead of four with eight teams from two regions playing there. The East Coast site is in Greenville, where the SEC tourney takes place.

South Carolina opens at home with East Tennessee on Nov. 7 before going to No. 17 Maryland on Nov. 11 and No. 2 Stanford on Nov. 20. There are games with UCLA and a title-game rematch with No. 6 UConn on Feb. 5. SEC play starts with Texas A&M on Dec. 29. The Gamecocks take on its two top rivals for the conference in No. 16 LSU on Feb. 12 and No. 5 Tennessee on Feb. 23.

More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https:// twitter.com/AP_Top25

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