What we learned from South Carolina’s ‘For the Culture’ special

COLLEGE PARK, MD - NOVEMBER 10: Zia Cooke #1 of the South Carolina Gamecocks talks to her teammates during the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Xfinity Center on November 10, 2019 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
COLLEGE PARK, MD - NOVEMBER 10: Zia Cooke #1 of the South Carolina Gamecocks talks to her teammates during the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Xfinity Center on November 10, 2019 in College Park, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images) /

Reflecting on what could have been, with an eye on the future

“This won’t ever get old,” said Dawn Staley, as she walked the hallways of Bon Secours Wellness Arena with the SEC tournament championship net around her neck.

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That was the opening scene of the “For the Culture” documentary of the South Carolina Gamecocks’ the 2019-20 season, which they spent most of ranked No. 1 in the country.

“When you’re able to do that in this conference, you’re able to compete for a national championship,” she told the team on March 8 in the locker room in Greenville, South Carolina. “We’re not done yet.”

That was March 8, and we all know what happens next: NCAA tournament canceled. Sporting events around the world on hold indefinitely. Why the special now?

Dawn Staley said on WIS, a local TV station in Columbia, South Carolina, that her team was underreported and disrespected in terms of coverage despite being the nation’s No. 1 team – and that’s how the documentary special came about. (To be fair, local media covered the team as the beat that it is, so she seems to be speaking about national media).

Here’s what we learned during the 1-hour special, which featured footage and Zoom interviews, that aired on SEC network:

Staley’s approach to the freshmen and 2019-20 season

The doc went all the way back to the 2019 Sweet 16 loss to Baylor, the Gamecocks were dominated by the eventual champions. In April, three players transferred and rising senior, and then rising senior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan entered the transfer portal.

The incoming recruiting class was No. 1 in the country and only three players on their way out (we all know now Herbert Harrigan stayed).

“It wasn’t about replacing statistics,” she said of the roster changes. “It was about replacing culture.”

Staley said she was “confident and cautious” when it came to the team, because their were so many unknowns.

South Carolina brought in Felicia and Johnny Allen (of Felicia Hall Allen & Associates) as consultants to help them with “what drives winning and what needs to be each person’s role to help drive and elevate their program.”

They noticed that Ty spoke up, the teammates leaned in. “Ty was the calm in the storm,” Felicia Allen said. “The freshman knew they could trust her.”

There was an experienced leader at a point and another at small forward, and Staley started three freshman for the first time all season.

It was the Maryland moment when she knew what the season would be like.

The team took off and found their own identity.

What actually happened in Virgin Islands

It was impossible, unless you paid a small fortune, to watch games from the Paradise Jam in November 2019, but the doc gave us footage from the Virgin Islands.

Aliyah Boston was able to go back to her hometown, but found out her beloved teachers passed away. The next day all her family made Thanksgiving dinner.

In the first game of the tournament, the entire team played terribly, and that’s no an understatement – the small bit of footage showed it: Boston’s foul trouble and visible emotions, Ty’s turnovers were the focal point of the flashback.

But the biggest moment was when Ty fouled out of the game, meaning there was no one to run the ship for the Gamecocks in her absence. If they could, wouldn’t be able to with her experience and precision. Staley told her, “You have to make better decisions and be a leader for this team.”

That seemed to be their season-changing moment.

South Carolina won the jam after beating Washington State and Baylor (sans Lauren Cox, was injured) by 15 points.

The next time they were truly challenged, they blew a lead and were trailing Mississippi State at home in the fourth quarter.

Ty calmed them down. Zia Cooke sealed the win with a football-like interception on an inbound play. The Gamecocks went on to hold UConn to 2 points in the first quarter of the matchup with the Huskies. South Carolina blew through through competition in SEC play and the tournament, and everyone was excited about what they’d do in the postseason.

“I’m so sad we didn’t see the culmination,” Holly Rowe said on the doc via Zoom.

But, as Staley noted in the doc, the season may not have ended the way anyone involved in the program may have wanted, but the future is bright. Three freshmen played all season, sophomore Destanni Henderson – think 21 points off the bench SEC tournament vs. Arkansas – is making her way as a starter, and more.

“All of the things we were capable of this year, nothing changes,” Cooke said.

South Carolina’s place in elite women’s basketball has been solidified.

Even Carolyn Peck, Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson all said this season etched South Carolina’s place “in the conversation (of) being basketball royalty.”

“Here at the University of South Carolina, we are creating a culture,” Staley said. “For the culture of women’s basketball.

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