After a last-second loss at Missouri on Feb. 19 in which South Carolina's star center was injured, the guards were a combined 9-of-37 from the field, the Gamecocks were outrebounded by eight and they fell out of a first-place tie in the SEC, coach Dawn Staley said, "I still think we're in a good place."
It turned out she was absolutely right. As the Gamecocks celebrate the program's first NCAA women's basketball title with a 67-55 win over Mississippi State on Sunday, it's interesting to go back exactly six weeks before the national championship game and look at everything that happened after that.
Disappointing as that 62-60 loss in the "other" Columbia was, it would be the last time the Gamecocks lost this season. They won their remaining 11 games, earning the SEC regular-season title, the league tournament title and the NCAA title.
Had you predicted all that on Feb. 19, not many would have believed it. The Gamecocks also had lost six days earlier at UConn 66-55, and the Huskies were the NCAA title favorites.
So what were the key factors that took the Gamecocks from the lows of Feb. 19 to the highs of April 2? Here are five of them:
Transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis were huge
It was confirmed Tuesday that both redshirt junior guards have declared for the upcoming WNBA draft on April 13. But their one season as Gamecocks was magical. They sat out 2015-16 as transfers, then accomplished what they came to South Carolina for.
"I remember I put up an Instagram post when I transferred, saying 'I want to win a national championship,'" Davis said. "For it to actually happen, it's incredible."
Other than Final Four Most Outstanding Player A'ja Wilson, Gray -- who spent her first two years at North Carolina -- was the Gamecocks' most consistent threat all season. She averaged 13.2 points and 5.0 rebounds and had a fearless attack-the-basket mentality that was important many times, including in the Final Four.
Davis was considered South Carolina's X-factor. A prolific scorer but high-volume shooter in her two years at Georgia Tech, could she adjust to a system where she wasn't the primary scorer? She did and still had some big scoring performances at critical times: 20 points vs. Mississippi State in the SEC final, 20 vs. Arizona State in the NCAA second round and 23 vs. Florida State in the regional final.
The rest of the perimeter came through
Guard play was key in all three of South Carolina's victories over Mississippi State, including Sunday's game for all the marbles. But it wasn't just Gray and Davis. Freshman point guard Tyasha Harris moved into the starting lineup for good on Jan. 1 and was steady despite her youth. She had just nine turnovers combined in her six NCAA tournament games. Harris also had season-highs of 16 points and six rebounds in the 71-64 Elite Eight victory over Florida State.
Junior Bianca Cuevas-Moore started 10 of the first 11 games of the season then mostly came off the bench as Harris became a starter. But when senior center Alaina Coates was injured at Missouri and South Carolina went to a smaller lineup, Cuevas-Moore moved into a starter's role again for the final seven games. She was key defensively in the NCAA final, frustrating Mississippi State point guard Morgan William.
And sophomore Doniyah Cliney also provided quality depth throughout the postseason. In the SEC and NCAA tournaments, she averaged 23.0 minutes per game and was a big asset defensively.
A'ja Wilson played at All-American level
The centerpiece of the team, she had to come up even bigger when her frontcourt mate Coates went out. The junior forward averaged 19.1 points (shooting 59.4 percent) and 8.8 rebounds with 16 blocks in the NCAA tournament. A "hometown kid" from Columbia, Wilson now has permanently etched her name in Gamecocks lore. Despite being emotionally devastated after losing her grandmother last October, Wilson played with great maturity and poise all season. (She doesn't turn 21 until August and is not eligible for this year's WNBA draft.)
Dawn Staley made the right moves
She hired former Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb as director of offensive analytics before this season. Known for her X's and O's expertise, and very familiar with Staley's teams as a fellow SEC coach, she brought in a fresh perspective.
Staley's lineup switch in January with Harris starting and Cuevas-Moore coming off the bench worked, as did having both of them start near the end of season when Coates was hurt.
In regard to Coates, in retrospect it's still not entirely clear if she perhaps shouldn't have played 27 minutes in the home finale Feb. 26 or made her brief (four minutes) appearance in the SEC tournament March 4. But the bottom line is, without a senior who'd averaged 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds this season, Staley still led South Carolina through the SEC and NCAA tournaments without a loss.
In her second trip to the Final Four as a coach, Staley seemed strategically very prepared. She beat one of her mentors, Tara VanDerveer, in the semifinals and then continued her success against Mississippi State in the final.
The Gamecocks got some good fortune
Even the best of teams can get an assist, and that's OK to acknowledge.
Kentucky and Tennessee beat Mississippi State in the last two games of the regular season. That, combined with South Carolina's victories over Texas A&M and Kentucky, gave the Gamecocks the SEC regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the league tournament.
While the Stockton Regional seemed punitive because it was so far away, it worked well for the Gamecocks. Their regional semifinal foe, No. 12 seed Quinnipiac, took out No. 5 Marquette and No. 4 Miami. The Bobcats, a great story in the early rounds, were no match for the Gamecocks in a 100-58 loss in which South Carolina's bench got plenty of minutes.
In the regional final, South Carolina faced No. 3 seed Florida State, which had upset No. 2 Oregon State. The Seminoles have never been to the Final Four, losing to the Gamecocks in the 2015 Elite Eight. Pac-12 regular-season champ Oregon State, which went to the Final Four last year, might have been a slightly tougher matchup for South Carolina because of the Beavers' defense.
In the Final Four, South Carolina beat No. 2 seed Stanford out of the Lexington Regional. What if No. 1 seed Notre Dame had not lost star forward Brianna Turner and had made it to the Final Four out of Lexington? The Irish beat the Gamecocks in the 2015 national semifinals.
Then Mississippi State upset overall No. 1 seed UConn. It's not to say the Gamecocks couldn't have done the same if they had met the Huskies in the final. But South Carolina came into the Final Four with a 10-game winning streak against Mississippi State and 0-5 all-time against UConn, including the aforementioned loss on Feb. 13. South Carolina ended up not facing any of the other No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
South Carolina totally earned this NCAA title. No question. But a few things outside their control also went right, which usually is the case for national champions.