Scott Davis: This one's for the family

On3 imageby:Scott Davis04/08/24
South Carolina basketball national championship postgame press Conference following win against Iowa

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Scott has followed South Carolina athletics for over 40 years and provides commentary from a fan perspective. He writes a weekly newsletter (sign up here) year-round and a column during football season that’s published each Monday on GamecockCentral.

Following is a special championship column. Never miss one of Scott’s newsletters; sign up here.

In the beginning, there was a word.

There was a word that changed everything, changed the way we thought about South Carolina women’s basketball, the way we thought about women’s sports in general at our school, and the way we thought about ourselves.

Something happened early in Dawn Staley’s tenure as the coach at South Carolina, and nothing has been the same since.

She stopped referring to those of us who love the university as “fans.”

Instead, she changed one letter. She replaced the “n” with an “m” and started calling us “FAMS.” We were no longer those fussy, whiny, frustrated nerds known as “fans,” the ones you always see hovering in the background of any sports broadcast, their arms folded, their faces tight, their very lives seemingly hanging in the balance.

No, we were family. We were sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, Moms and Dads.

We were part of this thing. We were on the journey with these women as they started the long process of trying to build a program from scratch. We were inside the locker room – maybe not literally, but spiritually.


The strange thing is that it really does feel like that. Sometimes we squabble amongst ourselves. Sometimes we smile until our faces hurt. We cried with the team when they won titles in 2017 and 2022. We cried again – this time from the pain in our hearts – when the fabulous Freshies saw their chance at an undefeated season end abruptly in the Final Four last year.

Families hug each other when they’re happy and when they’re hurting. Dawn – always and forever our matriarch – hugs us by her actions, by her words to us, by her example. I don’t personally know Dawn, and you probably don’t, either. But then, we do know her, don’t we? And she knows us.

What everyone knows now is that this family is celebrating another championship. South Carolina 87, Iowa 75, with the whole world watching.

For Staley and the players and the family, it’s the third title in seven years.

But this one feels unlike any that has come before it.

And the tears on Dawn Staley’s face when it was over, and the tears on my face, and on yours, were the proof of it.’

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Family Affair

Across the frenzied landscape of college athletics, we see so many head coaches and administrators and players and announcers and media members keep the fans at arm’s length, like we’re some stubborn head cold they have to endure to be able to take part in NCAA sports. If it was up to many of them, we probably wouldn’t be there at all, with all of our wild and unruly passion and weirdness and caring.

Sometimes it feels like many of the people involved in college athletics wish they could play these games in a vacuum and go home. And maybe if I was on the inside with them, I’d feel the same way. We can be a handful – it’s true.

But Dawn? Dawn didn’t leave us behind. She didn’t leave us out. She saw us. She always saw us.
See, Dawn brought us into the inner circle. She let us be a part of the huddle. She let us in.

And we responded by giving her and her team our hearts and souls. We responded by giving them everything we had.

This season – as they have so many times over so many years – her team gave us everything back. They rewarded those sellouts at Colonial Life Arena, rewarded all of those send-offs from the team hotel, those cheering crowds waiting for them upon their return to Columbia from a road trip.

They walked onto the floor 38 times and walked off as winners 38 times.

They got everyone’s very best effort and went 38-for-38, and they never stopped letting us take the ride with them, even though they were doing all the work driving the bus. In the end, facing the most celebrated player in the history of the women’s game in Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, it was a team – a family – that brought home the national championship.

It was South Carolina’s third title under Staley, and that fact alone placed the program in the upper echelon in the sport’s history. But no matter what happened before and what happens next, there will never be another one quite like this one, never another this memorable, this special, this meaningful.

If you’re not part of the family, you wouldn’t understand.

You’d see the final score, see that the Gamecocks wrapped up an undefeated season, see that they’d won three titles in the last seven years under Staley, and assume the program was an all-consuming behemoth flattening everyone in its way. You probably wouldn’t think the story was particularly interesting.

And you’d be wrong.

You wouldn’t understand the unreal quality this moment has for those of us who are Gamecocks by blood, wouldn’t be considering that the team lost all of its starting lineup from last year to the WNBA, wouldn’t be contemplating the reality that no media insiders or analysts were predicting this team to even win the SEC or return to the Final Four – much less rip off a perfect season capped by a title.

Those of us who are in the family know all of those things, though.

And for us? Well, this team, this run, this title will live in our hearts – in our blood – forever, in a way we’d never be able to articulate to those on the outside.

But if you’re in the family, you don’t have to try putting it into words. You already know.

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The Unforgettables

Here’s what I can tell you: I’ve been following South Carolina sports for 40 years, and this is my favorite Gamecock athletic team of all time.

I’ve never cared about a group of South Carolina athletes more than I care about them. From that win in Paris over Notre Dame back in November to the conquest of Iowa in April, their passion and their will to win became contagious. It became mine, and yours. These girls are the Unforgettables.

In the simplest of terms, this is what a team is supposed to be when you draw one up in your mind – everyone contributing, everyone caring, everyone giving everything, no one worrying about minutes or shots or camera time.

Coming into the game, Iowa’s all-everything Clark received the lion’s share of the media attention – the pregame broadcast almost started to feel like “The Caitlin Clark Show.” I didn’t begrudge her getting it. Clark is an otherworldly talent, she’s been a godsend to the sport, she’s a fierce competitor and she did everything she could to deliver a title for her team, scoring 30 points and ripping off a terrifying stretch early when it looked like the Hawkeyes might run away to a championship.

But it’s the South Carolina Gamecocks who are taking home the trophy, and they’re doing so because just about everyone wearing the uniform with the Block C logo did something to help bring the title back to Columbia.

Here’s what a team shows you: You look at Raven Johnson’s stat line – three points, three assists, five boards – and maybe you don’t bat an eye. Then you take another glance at her defensive effort against Clark and see that Iowa’s superstar shot just 27% when Johnson was guarding her. And that Johnson’s steal against Clark, followed by a layup that ended the first half and gave the Gamecocks a three-point lead at the break, felt like the beginning of the end for the Hawkeyes. That’s how a Revenge Tour ends, fam.

You take a closer look and see that South Carolina’s bench outscored Iowa’s bench to the tune of 37-0.

You see that a freshman role player like Tessa Johnson roared off the bench to lead the Gamecocks in scoring with 19 points. You see that a transfer player in Te-Hina Paopao poured in 14 points, that Chloe Kitts had 11 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double, that the Gamecocks’ best overall player Kamilla Cardoso showed up when her team needed her the most with 15 points and 17 boards.

You see the South Carolina Gamecocks and you see a team in the truest sense of the word.

For a program that treats its fans like a family, it was only fitting that its team always played like one.

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Let the Tears Flow Like Victory Champagne

Dawn wept.

When it was over, she started towards midcourt, then froze. The coach couldn’t move. And that’s when the tears came. Everything was coming out now, all that anxiety from all of this year’s close calls, all of that pain from last year’s Final Four fall from grace, all the joy, the hope, the work – everything flowed.

Finally, Chloe Kitts stumbled towards her coach and embraced her, almost in a type of rescue mission.

I was crying, too. And if you were, then you know what family feels like.

For Staley, this particular edition of the family had been one she’d had to keep an eye on a little more than others. She compared her fun-loving players – who enjoyed nothing more than singing and dancing before and after games – to a “daycare” of wild-eyed youngsters.

In the teary-eyed postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe, the great mother figure put her unit of daycare kiddos into perspective.

“You have to let young people be who they are,” she said. “But you also have to guide them and help them navigate through this tough, tough world. But when young people lock in and have a belief and trust and their parents have that same trust, this is what can happen. They made history. They etched their names in the history books when this is the unlikeliest group to do it.”

Yes, they are. And yes, they did.

Later, the ESPN broadcast team asked Paopao what Staley had meant to her development.

“We love her and she loves us,” she said simply, before thanking the ESPN crew for all the love they’d given the team this year.

And that’s what this season was.

It was nothing short of an act of love.

It felt like a beating heart, 38 games of love, emanating from us and coming back to us.

It felt like a warm hug from Mama, a pat on the back from Daddy, a solemn show of support from your very best friend.

It felt like everything.

And I would try to explain this to you, but it’s something you’d only understand if you’re part of this family.

But if you are? No explanations needed.

You already know.

Write me at [email protected].

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