Column: May South Carolina swell with pride
The top sports stories in yet another Weekend That Was:
5. In yet another matchup of two of the greatest men’s tennis players of all time, Roger Federer earns a two-month break from the game after knocking off Rafael Nadal in the Miami Open title match 6-3, 6-4, at Key Biscayne.
4. Thanks to a viewer emailing the LPGA about a ball placement the day before, Lexi Thompson is assessed a four-stroke penalty that wipes out a lead, and eventually loses the ANA Inspiration in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu on Sunday.
3. The Major League Baseball season begins on Sunday with the Tampa Bay Rays taking down the New York Yankees, 7-3, San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner belting two home runs, but his team losing in the bottom of the ninth to the Arizona Diamondbacks, 6-5, and the St. Louis Cardinals taking down the World Series champion Chicago Cubs, 4-3, in 12 innings.
2. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament reaches Monday’s championship with two exciting games as Gonzaga outlasts South Carolina, 77-72, and North Carolina claiming two clutch rebounds to hold off Oregon, 77-76.
1. South Carolina claims its first NCAA women’s basketball championship Sunday night, knocking off surprise finalist Mississippi State, 67-55.
Our topic of discussion: 1. A basketball title for the “other” Carolina.
It’s been a wonderful time to be a South Carolina native. Clemson’s football team won the national championship. Last summer, little Coastal Carolina stunned the college baseball world by winning its first World Series. And then there was this weekend involving the South Carolina men’s and women’s basketball teams.
The men were up first on Saturday, and in what was a terrifically played back-and-forth game, the Gamecocks fell short to Gonzaga, 77-72.
Then there was the women. Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks were on upset alert just days after Mississippi State had stunned Connecticut, 66-64, in overtime to end the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.
Though the game was close early on, South Carolina began to pull away, holding a 36-26 lead at halftime. Once again, Mississippi State got a bit closer, but each time the Bulldogs did so, the Gamecocks had an answer. And South Carolina did a terrific job of neutralizing point guard and the hero of Friday night’s win over UConn, Morgan William, who was held to just eight points and was nothing more than a spectator in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s championship.
The star in this one? That would be center A’ja Wilson, who put in 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to earn Most Outstanding Player honors for the Final Four. Teammate Allisha Gray was also a force down low with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Not only was this South Carolina’s first women’s basketball championship, but it was also Staley’s first in a whirlwind career that has included six WNBA All-Star nods, two national player of the year honors and three NCAA Final Four appearances at Virginia, losing in two semifinals and in the 1991 championship to Stanford.
A national championship seemed to be elusive. But she helped put Temple on the map, winning four Atlantic 10 Tournament titles in her tenure as a coach from 2000-08. She moved on to South Carolina in 2008 where the program had gone 20-60 in the conference in the previous five seasons. She built a power in Columbia and the Gamecocks have won the last three SEC Tournament championships and reached the Final Four for the first time in 2015.
Now, as she said, she “can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career.” And she will assume the role as the head coach of USA Basketball heading into the next Olympics in 2020, taking over for UConn head coach Geno Auriemma.
And speaking of which, a 111-game win streak is one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history, probably something none of us will ever see again. But when William hit that game-winning shot on Friday night in arguably the greatest women’s college basketball game ever, it meant ended the Huskies’ aura of invincibility.
Mississippi State may have lost the championship on Sunday, but won a lot of new fans because the Bulldogs successfully took down the UConn juggernaut. It also opened it up for Staley and her Gamecocks to win a national championship.
You know UConn will be back next year. And so will South Carolina, which has now staked its claim among the great teams in the sport.
Did we see a passing of the torch from Auriemma to Staley in not just terms of running our national team? Was this the start of a dynasty? Time will reveal that answer.
For now, everyone in the state of South Carolina should continue to swell in pride over this latest accomplishment.
Mark Blumenthal is a writer for the Palatka Daily News. You can reach him on Twitter @diabolicalmarky.