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Which was the best?
General  . 

Which was the best?

by Brad Muller

The Dilemma

From where I sit, it’s hard to pick out which South Carolina women’s basketball team is the best. It’s been quite a run for Dawn Staley since she took over the program 15 years ago. As the radio play-by-play voice of the program from the last 16 years, I’ve enjoyed a front row seat for it all.  The Gamecocks have finished as the number one team in the country three times with national championships in 2017 and 2022, and South Carolina was the number one ranked team in the country heading into the postseason in 2020 when the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, which was the best? Click the buttons to make a case for each team below. Go to the bottom of the page to see how you can cast your vote. Oh, and scroll through the gallery below to reminisce.

Brad Muller with Debbie Antonelli

The Teams

2016-17 Gamecocks

Key players: (F) A’ja Wilson (17.9 ppg/7.9 rpg), (C) Alaina Coates (12.9 ppg/10.7 rpg), (G) Allisha Gray (13.2 ppg/5.0 rpg), (G) Kaela Davis (12.7 ppg/1.8 rpg), Tyasha Harris (5.6 ppg/3.2 apg), Bianca Cuevas Moore (8.3 ppg/1.6 spg).

This roster reads like an all-star team. Consider that six members of this team have played in the WNBA, including all five starters. The Gamecocks had a pair of All-Americans in the paint with future National Player of the Year A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates. The duo combined for 129 blocked shots making the paint a no-fly zone for opponents. It’s hard to remember a tandem running the high-low offense any better. One could post up high while the other sat on the low block. If you double-teamed the low post, both were good enough to hit a 15-footer or drive to the basket for a layup. I loved watching Alaina Coates when she was fired up. If she flung the ponytail, I knew the person guarding her didn’t have a chance. If you doubled up high, it was still an easy pass down low where both were good enough to beat anyone one-on-one for an easy two-footer. Coming off the bench was a future star in Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (4.9 ppg/3.3 ppg, 39 blocked shots).

At guards, you had Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis. It pains me that South Carolina only had them for one year since they transferred from other schools and went pro with a year of eligibility remaining. Both had to sit out a year prior to playing for the Garnet and Black. Too bad the transfer portal wasn’t in its current form back then! Anyway, Gray could do everything. She could score from anywhere and defend like a beast! Davis had tremendous size and athleticism that just made her a mismatch for everyone.

The Gamecocks had a pair of quality point guards as Bianca Cuevas-Moore started the year, and later gave way to freshman stalwart Tyasha Harris. I loved Bianca’s savvy play, and I definitely respected how she handled things when Ty took over as the starter.

WHY THEY MIGHT BE THE BEST: I have to admit, when I first saw the non-conference slate prior to the start of the season, I thought it was a bit ambitious. What did I know? The Gamecocks went 12-1 against ranked teams, including a season-opening 12-point win at #7 Ohio State, a 14-point drubbing of #4 Louisville at a neutral site, followed by a nine-point win at #14 Texas in the first two-plus weeks of the season! The Gamecocks also had a top-10 win over #9 UCLA. In SEC play, the Gamecocks beat nationally ranked Kentucky twice and held off #4 Mississippi State by three at Colonial Life Arena. All five starters were legitimate scoring threats.

In the postseason, the Gamecocks knocked out nationally ranked Kentucky again in the SEC Tournament semis before thwarting #6 Mississippi State again in the title game. South Carolina would roll through the NCAA Tournament, which included wins over #10 Florida State, #6 Stanford, and #7 Mississippi State again in the National Championship game.

What made this team special to me is that the Gamecocks won the National Championship despite losing one of their best players just prior to the start of the postseason. All-American center Alaina Coates went down with an ankle injury at the end of the regular season, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore was inserted into what was now a four-guard starting lineup. The Gamecocks were able to play faster, and nobody could catch up! Overall, this team shot 48 percent from the floor, hit 72 percent of its free throws, while out-scoring opponents by 19.5 points per game and finishing +6.3 rebounds per game.

I’ll never forget the joy I felt, and that I witnessed from all involved in seeing the program win its first National Championship. So, if you tell me this was the best of the three South Carolina teams, I won’t tell you you’re wrong.

Dawn Staley 2017 National Championship Trophy

Quick Facts

  • 2017 National Champions
  • SEC Regular Season & Tournament Champions
  • Record: 33-4, 14-2 SEC

2019-20 Gamecocks

Key players: (PG) Tyasha Harris (12.0 ppg/5.7 apg), (F) Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (13.1 ppg/5.6 rpg/58 blocks) (C) Aliyah Boston (12.5 ppg/9.4 rpg, 86 Blocks), (G) Zia Cooke (12.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg), (G) Brea Beal (6.1 ppg/5.4 rpg), (G) Destanni Henderson (8.5 ppg/2.8 apg).

With all due respect to opposing fan bases and teams from this season, I’m sorry, South Carolina was going to win the 2020 National Championship had the NCAA Tournament not been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic just a couple of days after the Gamecocks won the SEC Tournament with a convincing 14-point win over #9 Mississippi State. For what it’s worth, in any of the other great years for South Carolina, I knew that the garnet and black team was good, but I always knew it was possible for other teams to win. This season, there was never a doubt in my mind that South Carolina would beat whoever suited up against them that day. They were just playing that well!

The roster was a great mix of solid veterans and the greatest performing freshman class in program history. I’ll talk about the seniors in a minute, but the rookies were as good as advertised! Freshmen Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Brea Beal did not play like freshmen… at all. They started every game from day one. Boston was an All-American and the National Freshman of the Year among many other accolades. She shot 61% from the floor and was a menace with her shot-blocking ability. Cooke was a playmaker on both ends of the floor, and Beal quickly earned her reputation as a shutdown defender.

There was plenty of depth coming off the bench with future starter and WNBA point guard Destanni Henderson dropping dimes while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, and LeLe Grissett (6.4 ppg/3.8 rpg) creating havoc on defense and finishing under the basket, shooting 63% from the floor. Victaria Saxton (5.4 ppg/43 blocks) and Laeticia Amihere (4.7 ppg/3.9 rpg/33 blocks) were coming into their own as well.

WHY THEY MIGHT BE THE BEST: The Gamecocks were 13-1 against ranked teams that year. They beat #4 Maryland on the road in the second game of the season, showing that the freshmen were indeed ahead of schedule. The only loss came at a holiday tournament in the Virgin Islands to #17 Indiana. The Hoosiers were good, but the Gamecocks played poorly. They wouldn’t play poorly again anytime soon. Two days later, the Gamecocks defeated defending National Champion and #2 ranked Baylor by 15 points. The Gamecocks later earned top-25 wins in the regular season over South Dakota, Kentucky (twice), Arkansas (twice), Tennessee, and Texas A&M. South Carolina also downed #9 Mississippi State and then, in its most dominant game of the year, the Gamecocks dismantled #5 UConn at Colonial Life Arena 70-52, holding the Huskies to just two points in the first quarter!

The Gamecocks again defeated #25 Arkansas in the SEC Tournament semifinals before crushing rival #9 Mississippi State again to take home the tournament championship.

I know. I haven’t even mentioned senior point guard Tyasha Harris and senior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan yet. I’ve been broadcasting women’s college basketball since 1993, and I’ve never seen better senior leadership on the floor than what this tandem brought to the table. It’s a cliché, but these two were not going to allow this team to lose. I like to think of them as fire and ice.

Harris could get everyone involved in the offense and was the perfect floor general to keep her young teammates on the right path. She was cool under pressure and brought a calming presence whenever there was a storm during a game. I know Coach Staley trusted her no matter what was happening. She was the unselfish player who could also take over a game when needed with scoring of her own, whether it was shooting off the dribble or driving to the hole. She was the cool and the calm that ran this team.

Of course, you have to have some fire to go along with that ice, and that’s where Herbert Harrigan came in at forward. With her size and agility, she was a matchup nightmare. She could post up, drive to the basket, shoot the mid-range, and also shot 44% from 3-point range. Beyond the stats, what she brought to the team was an attitude and feistiness that screamed, “not on my watch!” She could intimidate opponents while firing up her teammates at any moment.

The Gamecocks ended the year on a 26-game win streak. They shot 47% as a team, 70% from the free throw line and outscored their opponents by 26 points per game, averaging 82 points per contest with a +12.4 rebound margin. A lot of the pundits were predicting a South Carolina/Oregon National Championship matchup, but it was not to be. Again, with apologies to our friends in the Pacific Northwest, I have no doubt that this was going to be South Carolina’s year. I know they can’t give out a National Championship trophy because the tournament didn’t get played, but in my mind, this will always be South Carolina’s second National Championship.

So, if you tell me this was the best of the three South Carolina teams, I won’t tell you you’re wrong.

2020 SEC Tournament celebration, Aliyah Boston, Tyasha Harris

Quick Facts

  • 2020 Ranked #1 at End of Season
  • SEC Regular Season & Tournament Champions
  • Record: 32-1, 16-0 SEC

2021-22 Gamecocks

Key Players: (C) Aliyah Boston (16.8 ppg/12.5 rpg/90 blocks), (G) Destanni Henderson (11.5 ppg/3.9 apg), (G) Zia Cooke (10.7 ppg/2.1 rpg), (G) Brea Beal (5.1 ppg/5.0 rpg), (F) Victaria Saxton (5.8 ppg/5.8 rpg, 48 blocks), (F) Laeticia Amihere (6.3 ppg/3.6 rpg), (C) Kamilla Cardoso (5.4 ppg/5.1 rpg, 46 blocks)

The 2021-22 Gamecocks started and finished the season the same way: as the #1 team in the nation. I don’t know if fans really appreciate how hard that is to do. They returned every single player from the previous year, which had ended in the Final Four with a loss to eventual National Champion Stanford after missing a pair of layups in the final seconds. They were good, but that’s a lot of pressure.

Once again, the non-conference slate was imposing. It started with a season opening win at #5 N.C. State. South Carolina also knocked off #9 Oregon and #2 UConn on back-to-back days at a tournament in the Bahamas. (Side note: one of my favorite perks of this job is getting to go to these great locations for tournaments!) The Gamecocks rallied from a double-digit deficit to down the Huskies. That was just the first two weeks of the season! December was highlighted by wins at home over #8 Maryland, at #15 Duke, and an incredible rally from 18 points down to defeat #2 Stanford at Colonial Life Arena. The win over the Cardinal was the most incredible comeback I have seen in 30 years of broadcasting. There was no doubt that this team was special.

After suffering through an inexplicable one-point overtime loss in the SEC opener at Missouri, the Gamecocks won their next 15 regular season games to claim the SEC Championship. That included rallying from a double-digit deficit in a win at #13 LSU as well as victories over #21 Kentucky, #24 Ole Miss, #17 Georgia, and #12 Tennessee. The Gamecocks overcame some adversity as starting point guard Destanni Henderson missed a few games with injury, but point-forward Laeticia Amihere filled in admirably.

The starting five were solid and there was some great depth to keep their legs fresh.  National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston was simply dominant all year long, posting 30 double-doubles. Henderson did a great job in getting out in transition when needed, hitting 3s and being solid on defense. Zia Cooke didn’t have her best year statistically, but that’s a pretty high standard, and was still a terrific scoring threat at shooting guard. Fellow guard Brea Beal and forward Victaria Saxton were the “glue” players that you have to have. Beal’s defense consistently locked down the opposition’s best player, and she used her size well to score and rebound whenever needed. Saxton was similar and often had tough assignments on defense, but she always handled her business the right way and had a knack for the big play when it was needed on either end of the court.

Coming off the bench, Amihere’s athleticism, Kamilla Cardoso’s (5.4 ppg/5.1 rpg 46 blocks) 6’7” frame, LeLe Grissett’s (3.2 ppg/2.0 rpg) energy, Bree Hall’s (2.7 ppg/1.5 rpg) defense and playmaking ability, and Destiny Littleton’s (2.6 ppg/1.3 rpg) knack for hitting big shots in the clutch all made life hard for the opposing players, who were often getting worn down by the starting five.

WHY THEY MIGHT BE THE BEST: After a heartbreaking loss in the last few seconds to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championship game, the Gamecocks seemed to take a deep breath and then reminded everyone that defense wins championships. After holding Howard to the fewest points (21) allowed in a NCAA Tournament game in round one, the Gamecocks allowed only 33 points in a second-round win over Miami. South Carolina defeated 17th-ranked North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and then pummeled “Cinderella” Creighton 80-50 to advance to the Final Four for the second-straight year. The Gamecocks allowed only 59 points to #4 Louisville in the national semifinal and then thumped #5 UConn 64-49 in the championship game, holding the Huskies 25 points below their season scoring average and also out-rebounding them 49-24. Against the Huskies, the Gamecocks opened the game on an 11-2 run and never trailed. South Carolina’s 45.5 points allowed per game in its run of six NCAA tournament games is the second-lowest by a men’s or women’s champion over the last 75 years. Henderson’s career night is etched in my memory banks. After the game, I did something I very rarely do: I took a selfie with a player (Henderson). I was so proud of how she waited her turn during her career, stuck with it, and had the game of her life when it mattered the most. I was also extremely happy to see tears of joy from Aliyah Boston after tears of sadness the year before.

The Gamecocks won a school-record 35 games and were 14-0 against ranked teams. That’s just mind-blowing! They shot 43% from the floor for the year but outscored their opponents by an average of 20 points per game, and the Gamecocks were +17.7 in rebounds per game. I was again happy for everyone involved, but it was quite satisfying to see

So, if you tell me this was the best of the three South Carolina teams, I won’t tell you you’re wrong.

Boston 2022 National Champions

Quick Facts

  • 2022 National Champions
  • SEC Regular Season Champions
  • Record: 35-2, 15-1 SEC

The Conclusion

Ask me which team was better? From where I sit, you can’t go wrong with any of the three teams. Maybe it’s the sympathetic side of me, but my vote goes to the 2019-2020 team that didn’t get the chance to cut down the nets due to the pandemic. What’s your vote?

Oh, and, if you’ve missed it, this year’s Gamecocks are making a bid for this to be a four-team discussion soon!

Share this story and tell me what you think on Twitter – @SCBrad92