GREENVILLE, S.C. – Dawn Staley knows what's next for unbeaten South Carolina — a matchup the whole women's college basketball world is eager to see.
But for now, the coach wants to revel in her extraordinary Gamecocks and their amazing achievements.
Aliyah Boston had 22 points and 10 rebounds and top-seeded South Carolina used its smothering defense to stop Maryland 86-75 Monday night and reach its third straight Final Four.
Do-it-all star Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes await in the national semifinals in Dallas on Friday, a game featuring two of the biggest stars in the sport. That can wait a bit. Her players deserve that, Staley said.
“I just want to enjoy this and just give our players an opportunity to be talked about,” Staley said. “The joy that I feel for this team to be able to be where they are, I’m just really happy.”
Staley's team improved to 36-0 this season with its 42nd straight victory dating to last year's NCAA title run. The Gamecocks are now two games away from repeating as champions and completing the 10th undefeated season in the women's game.
The Gamecocks hugged and jumped when it was over. It's the fifth Final Four since 2015, all under Staley. She'll try for her third national title next week.
“Not a lot of teams can say they’re able to do this,” Boston said. "So for us to be able to do it feels really good, and it’s such a blessing we won’t ever take for granted."
Zia Cooke finished with 18 points and Brea Beal 16 for the Gamecocks.
Boston, the 6-foot-5 senior, made 10 of 14 shots. The three-time All-American added five assists, two blocked shots and was named the Greenville 1 Regional's most outstanding player.
Staley ran around the court thanking players, coaches and supporters. She hugged the pep band director and cheered on the musicians with a glowing smile.
Maryland (28-7) was routed at home, 81-56, by the Gamecocks last Nov. 11, but played without injured All-American Diamond Miller.
With a healthy Miller and an offense averaging nearly 80 points a game, the Terrapins were ready to take on the big, imposing Gamecocks. Maryland pushed the pace early, disrupting South Carolina's No. 1 defense and was ahead 21-15 as an edgy, pro-Gamecock crowd wasn't sure what it was watching.
South Carolina didn't panic. Cooke shook off an 0-for-3 start to score nine points. Boston was her steady self with 12 points in the half as the Gamecocks outscored the Terps 23-9 in the second quarter to lead 38-30 at halftime.
“I thought the game was lost in the second quarter,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “Their size, their depth, they wear you out.”
Maryland got two quick baskets after the break to cut South Carolina's lead to 48-42. But the Gamecocks answered with a 14-3 burst to take control for good.
Miller led the Terps, looking for their first trip to the Final Four since 2015, with 24 points. Miller picked up a technical foul late in the game and thought it was an unevenly called game. “I'm not going to say the refs lost us the game,” she said. “I mean, they outrebounded us as we kind of expected."
Maryland shot 50% for the game, yet couldn't hold up down low against the Gamecocks. South Carolina outrebounded the Terps 48-26 and 25-7 on the offensive glass.
Maryland: Terps have seven seniors, including Miller and four other starters. But Shyanne Sellers is a rising sophomore and likely focal point for Maryland the next couple of seasons. Expect Frese to work hard in the offseason to scour the portal for additions who can augment Maryland's young roster.
South Carolina: These are certainly the glory days for Gamecocks women's basketball. Maryland gave Iowa a glimpse into what may rattle the Gamecocks, although they quickly adjusted to gain control. But tightening up to prevent easy layups the Terps got early will certainly be a focus at South Carolina's practices this week.
Turns out, LSU coach Kim Mulkey knew what she was talking about. She declared Sunday night after her team won the Greenville 2 Region to reach the Final Four that the Southeastern Conference would have half the field next week.
“The champion, South Carolina is going. I’m just telling you flat out. I’m getting ahead of myself, OK, but you write it. They’re going," she said.
The Tigers and Gamecocks could play for a championship should both advance.
RACKING UP ACCOLADES
Staley joined UConn's Geno Auriemma, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and Mulkey as active coaches with five or more trips to the Final Four. Staley's first visit came in 2015, then she led the Gamecocks to a title in 2017. The Gamecocks have been the past three, losing to Stanford in the semifinals in 2021 before winning it all last year in Minneapolis.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25