South Carolina coach Dawn Staley eyes Final Four return

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley doesn't think South Carolina's first trip to the Final Four will be its last. She's already planning on how to get back next season.

South Carolina's landmark season ended Sunday night with a 66-65 loss to Notre Dame in the national semifinals in Tampa, Florida. Staley had set an NCAA Tournament title as her team's goal since last April. She's not shying away from that in 2016.

''The future is bright. I'm encouraged,'' Staley said. ''The loss is disappointing and it hurts. But when you look at some of our young players, they've grown up. They've got a year under their belts and I think they understand what it takes to get there.''

The Gamecocks returned home Monday, cheered at the airport by about 200 fans.

South Carolina (34-3) won regular-season and tournament titles in the Southeastern Conference. The 34 wins were a program record.

It looked as if the Gamecocks had dug themselves all the way out of a 12-point second-half deficit when Aleighsa Welch's basket gave them their first and only lead, 65-64, with 1:12 to go. But unlike late NCAA victories over North Carolina and Florida State last weekend, the Gamecocks could not hold on.

To think about the missed chances drove Staley nuts. She eased her mood a bit by looking toward next season's lineup. The Gamecocks lose two senior starters in 6-foot-4 Elem Ibiam and 6-foot Welch, the team's unquestioned leader.

That's two frontcourt spots that most likely will go to South Carolina's super subs - 6-4 Alaina Coates and 6-5 A'ja Wilson. Coates and Wilson were the backbone of a bench that tied or outscored the starters in 22 of 37 games this season.

Coates led the team with 12 games with double-figure points and rebounds. Wilson, the SEC's freshman of the year, had 20 points and nine rebounds in the Notre Dame loss.

''We did talk about some of the things we need to do to get better,'' Staley said.

The Gamecocks got off to slow starts in each of their past three NCAA Tournament games, including falling behind Notre Dame 17-5. Part of that comes from having Wilson and Coates - the second- and third leading scorers this season - on the bench waiting to come in.

''Certainly, we've got to have people on the floor who can score so we don't play at a disadvantage,'' Staley said.

That includes Tiffany Mitchell, the two-time defending SEC player of the year who will be a senior next fall. Staley thinks Mitchell has to become the kind of vocal leader Welch was the past few seasons.

Next year's bench will probably feature 6-4 Jatarie White, the team's third McDonald's All-American out of last year's recruiting class whose development was slowed by injuries.

Welch, for one, has no doubt the team she's leaving will be a top contender for next year's Final Four.

''I think the sky's the limit,'' she said. ''I think it's about still progressing and still going up.''

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