Unbeaten South Carolina flying under radar in women’s March Madness Final Four

Sometimes, the quest for a perfect season requires late-game magic to remain intact.

South Carolina’s certainly did in the SEC semifinals last month, when center Kamilla Cardoso banked in a 3-pointer — the first of her collegiate career — with 1.1 seconds remaining to stun Tennessee.

Other climbs avoided drama.

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso averages 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds, both team highs. Getty Images

That’s what happened for Connecticut in 2015-16, when the Huskies secured the ninth undefeated season in women’s college basketball and their third in seven years.

But the sport has lacked an undefeated champion since.

There’s more parity. The landscape has changed.

Talented stars scatter across major conferences instead of concentrating on a select few teams.

Perfect seasons happened five times between 2008-09 and 2015-16, with UConn notching four of them and Baylor recording the other.

Texas (in 1985-86) and Tennessee (in 1997-98) also achieved the feat.

So if No. 1 South Carolina defeats N.C. State on Friday then prevails in the championship, the Gamecocks would become the first in eight seasons.

They kept their perfect mark until the Final Four last year and followed that by navigating back to this point, on the verge of an elusive accomplishment that Minnesota Lynx star Napheesa Collier predicted will be “harder and harder” to hit in the future.

Te-Hina Paopao, a South Carolina guard, sits second nationally for 3-point percentage (46.3). AP

“For them to be able to have a perfect season, it’s really something special,” Collier, a freshman on UConn’s 2015-16 team, told The Post. “It’s special anytime you do it, but the more and more the game grows, it’s really just a testament to how good of a team they are.”

Te-Hina Paopao, a South Carolina guard, sits second nationally for 3-point percentage (46.3).

Raven Johnson has the fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio (3.0).

Cardoso averages 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds, both team highs. The Gamecocks’ opponents shot just 26.9 on 3-pointers, and they compiled the No. 1 scoring margin (29.6), too.

Head coach Dawn Staley doesn’t know why, to a degree, the Gamecocks have flown under the radar.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

“I like it,” she said Sunday, after South Carolina’s game drew 3.1 million viewers one day before Iowa-LSU generated 12.3.

Staley’s recruiting allowed South Carolina to assemble a roster that can “spread the floor,” Collier said. Wisconsin head coach Marisa Moseley, a UConn assistant for three perfect teams, told The Post the Gamecocks have been successful at “blocking out” the inevitable buzz that comes with a chase for perfection.

“Like go ahead, take the spotlight, put it somewhere else,” Staley said. “Let this team continue to thrive in the space that they’re given. Hopefully at the end of the day, next week this time, I’m hoping that we give a lot of people a lot to talk about.”

Teams have come close since UConn won in 2016. South Carolina went 35-2 in 2022. Stanford only lost twice the previous year. And in 2019, a five-point setback to the Cardinal was the lone blemish during Baylor’s championship season.

If anything, Los Angeles Sparks guard and former UConn star Kia Nurse told The Post, she would’ve expected the Huskies to orchestrate another undefeated season.

Her freshman and sophomore years overlapped with the group of seniors — Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck — that went 151-5 and won four national titles.

“I didn’t know anything different,” Collier said of 2015-16.

Repeat champions and extended, multi-season winning streaks became nonexistent, though.

The bids for perfection that fell short served as cautionary tales for just how difficult the task had become. But South Carolina, finally, could change that this weekend.

“If it was easy, everybody would’ve done it,” Nurse said. “It just would happen consistently. So the fact that we were able to do it for multiple seasons speaks probably more to the greatness that exists at Connecticut.

“Because if you could have an undefeated season, there’d be undefeated seasons across all sports everywhere, and it just doesn’t necessarily happen that often.”


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