Columbia is 'the basketball capital of the United States'

Columbia is 'the basketball capital of the United States'

Photo gallery by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth

Columbia, S.C. – Thanks to the South Carolina women's basketball team, the City of Columbia and University of South Carolina had a national championship parade to plan for the first time in six years.

The Gamecocks' victory over Mississippi State in the 2017 NCAA National Championship on April 2 was the culmination of a wild month for not only the women's basketball team, but the men's as well. 

The No. 1 seed women's team making the Final Four didn't come as much of a surprise. However, Connecticut, the four-time defending national champions, was the clear cut favorite in the field. When Mississippi State pulled off a monumental upset over the Huskies, South Carolina took advantage of the opportunity.

On the men's side, the Frank Martin-led Gamecocks were a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the perception was that the team limped into postseason play with losses in five of its last seven games. The Gamecocks proceeded to upset Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida to punch a ticket to the Final Four for the first time in program history. 

With both programs in the national semifinals, Columbia had turned into Hoop City. 

"Throughout the last several weeks, Columbia has become the basketball capital of the United States," Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin told reporters shortly after the women became national champs. "We're going to continue to prosper in the national spotlight. We're going to recruit fantastic players. We're going to hopefully keep Frank Martin and Dawn Staley right where they are and continue to build on what's becoming a brand new basketball tradition." 

Benjamin is close with South Carolina women's head coach Dawn Staley and star junior A'ja Wilson. In fact, the mayor said Wilson's grandfather baptized him. That's one of the reasons he was almost brought to tears when the Gamecocks became national champions. Something else that stands out to Benjamin is Staley's willingness to embrace the city and community surrounding Columbia.

"Dawn Staley is the ultimate community servant," Benjamin said. "She's served ice cream with me for charity and whenever I've called on her to serve the community, she's always there. She's a princess and a queen of a woman, and we're just thankful to have her in Columbia, South Carolina." 

South Carolina helped the Southeastern Conference make a name for itself this postseason, particularly on the men's side where the perception was Florida, Kentucky, and then everyone else. South Carolina was one of three SEC teams in the Elite Eight on the men's side, and with both combined, the league had three teams in the Final Four with the Gamecocks taking two of those spots. 

Ultimately, the South Carolina women took home the national title, which resulted in the aforementioned parade on Sunday. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was present at the celebration, and thanked the fans for their support of the school and league. 

While speaking to Spurs & Feathers before the parade started, Sankey said he was asked what the league lacked on the women's side at the SEC tournament in Greenville.  

"I said one thing, the National Championship trophy, it's just been too long," Sankey recalled. "We checked that box on the list." 

**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth**