Gamecocks finish regular season undefeated again. Why this time feels different

Two years. Two completely different starting lineups. One common result: perfection.

South Carolina women’s basketball finished the 2023-24 regular season undefeated in front of an announced sellout of 18,000 fans Sunday at Colonial Life Arena with a 76-68 victory over Tennessee. The Gamecocks followed up the first perfect regular-season campaign in program history with another one, despite losing 66.5% of their offensive production a year ago to graduation and the WNBA Draft.

External expectations in the preseason still had USC as a top-10 team, finishing second in the SEC to reigning national champion LSU. But internally, Staley felt those rankings and projections were generous and largely rooted in the program’s historic success.

She’s still not sure what to make of this team other than knowing it’s made up of gritty competitors who (so far and somehow) always find a way to win games.

“I don’t feel like we’re a lock to win every basketball game,” Staley said Sunday about her impressions of this team heading into the postseason. “Every game that we enter into with this team, it’s the same question mark that hangs over. Like, ‘Who are they gonna be?’ ”

The locker room last year compared with this year isn’t like night and day, but more like “doctorate program” and “daycare,” respectively, Staley said.

The “Freshies”-led Gamecocks were all about business. They went undefeated in 2022-23 with their eyes and hearts set on a second consecutive national championship. They played with pressure.

The 2023-24 Gamecocks, led more so by committee, are loud. They “shoot themselves out of a cannon” during games, Staley told The State in December, expending the kind of energy only a team so chock-full of youth could and still emerge victorious. They play free of pressure.

“It’s so much talking, about nothing. ... It really is just who they are,” Staley said Sunday. “It’s their identity. We don’t really fight that battle.

“We just put our earplugs in and keep it moving.”

Staley has been vocal all season that this team plays much better on gameday than in practice. While she keeps wondering if or when that midweek team will show up in a game, the players themselves don’t. While a zero in the loss column realistically can’t weight anything, one would have to think it gets heavier on a team’s mind with each passing week, right?

No, Te-Hina Paopao said.

“It’s just no pressure at all,” Paopao said. “We just love to play with each other and want to go out there and win no matter how we get it.”

Since the buzzer sounded on the season opener in Paris about four months ago, it’s kind of felt like the Gamecocks were playing on borrowed time. Yes, they were supposed to be good. But not this good. Not a practical lock for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of what transpires in Greenville this week.

USC has been only undefeated team left in all of college basketball for weeks. It seems safe to say this team has created good habits heading into the postseason with 29 wins to its name. Good habits, though, not perfect ones.

Staley wrapped up her postgame press conference Sunday by saying she’s anxious to see how the Gamecocks operate during the SEC Tournament this week. She’s not the only one.