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When Iowa ended South Carolina's undefeated season in last year's Final Four, it wasn't just a shocking result. It was a shocking end to an era. All five Gamecocks starters -- including unanimous All-America selection and then-future No. 1 WNBA Draft pick Aliyah Boston -- would depart. A 36-0 season had turned to 36-1, and one of the sport's all-time dominant teams had been stopped cold in its tracks.

Dawn Staley knew she'd have to rely on youth, depth and development to build her latest powerhouse, and all season it clicked. South Carolina once again entered its NCAA Tournament against Iowa undefeated, this time in the national championship game. And this time, thanks to that youth, depth and development, Staley and her Gamecocks are national champions.

"They made history," Staley told ESPN after the game, fighting back tears. "They etched their names in the history books when this is the unlikeliest group to do it. Sometimes, I mean, God is funny like that. He rips your heart out and he makes you believe the unimaginable."

The final numbers are indeed unimaginable. The Gamecocks' bench outscored the Hawkeyes' 37-0. The leading scorers on that bench unit? Two players who weren't even on the roster last year: freshmen Tessa Johnson (19 points) and MiLaysia Fulwiley (nine). The two other contributors were on the roster last season but didn't face the Hawkeyes: Sania Feagin and Ashlyn Watkins were highly regarded underclassmen biding their time behind more experienced stars.

But on Sunday, Feagin and Watkins were all grown up. Feagin notched six points and four rebounds in just 18 minutes. The Gamecocks outscored the Hawkeyes by 22 with her on the court, the best number on the team. Watkins, meanwhile, had three points, five rebounds and two steals, including what might have the biggest defensive play of the game. After Caitlin Clark and Gabbie Marshall hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the South Carolina lead to six points, Iowa got a stop, and Sydney Affolter took off the other way. But Watkins sprinted back, knocked the ball away from behind and tracked it down before going out of bounds. Johnson made two free throws on the other end, and Iowa never got closer than five thereafter.

During their NCAA Tournament run as a whole, South Carolina's bench scored a whopping 222 points, most by a bench in a single tournament since at least 2000.

It's a remarkable group with remarkable talent. Johnson -- the No. 25 overall recruit in ESPN's 2023 rankings -- was the lowest-ranked of the four. It would have been easy for any of them to transfer or make a fuss about their roles. But they didn't. And now they're champions.

"The culture that Coach Staley built," Johnson said. "The atmosphere, the environment that we're in. We're unselfish people, and that's how we win it."

Just like her players having to adjust to new roles, Staley had to adjust, too. After finishing the regular season last month, she used "doctorate program" vs. "daycare" to compare last year's experienced team to this year's youthful one.

That meant letting Fulwiley -- an unbelievably skilled, creative scorer -- play through mistakes. When she tried an audacious behind-the-back move into a reverse layup and bricked the shot late in the first half, Staley didn't sub her out. Fulwiley rewarded her coach's patience with two assists as South Carolina used a 12-5 run to take a 49-46 halftime lead.

"You have to let young people be who they are, but you have to guide them and help them navigate through this tough, tough world," Staley said. "But when young people lock in and have a belief and have a trust, and their parents have that same trust, this is what can happen."

Fulwiley might be the best example.

"I think MiLaysia Fulwiley has been very patient with us -- to be able to have a household name coming off the bench, playing maybe, probably less than 20 minutes a game, where she could have gone anywhere else in the country and they'd have given her the ball time and time again," Staley said. "But winning a national championship will allow us and that relationship to continue to grow because I know she really wanted this."

That also meant empowering Johnson, who came on especially strong late. She showed three-level scoring ability and finished with 19 points in the biggest game of her life.

"I don't feel pressure because the team that I have and the coaches that I have, they're like … no matter if I make a mistake, they're always going to encourage me, and they're never gonna let me give up on myself," Johnson said.

Her teammates, in turn, spoke on that encouragement postgame:

"I'm going to give Tessa Johnson her flowers," Raven Johnson said. "When you talk about a freshman, it's just the stuff that she does. She's always ready for the moments. When her number is called, she's always ready."

Added Te-Hina Paopao: "Tessa was due for a breakout game. What to do better than on a national stage? She's trusted her process here. She's trusted her journey. And for her to do that on such a big stage, I'm so proud of her. Her confidence has grown so much."

South Carolina's depth wasn't just an advantage offensively. It allowed the Gamecocks to use a variety of defenders and defenses on Clark. Division I's all-time leading scorer still racked up 30 points, but she needed 28 shots to do so. After scoring 18 points on five of eight shooting in the first quarter, she managed just 12 points on five for 20 shooting over the final three quarters.

"That was a huge advantage because I think they played nine people in double figures," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. "We had six. Just to have those extra fouls and extra legs. ... To be able to have all those fresh legs on Caitlin was really tough."

Eventually Clark and her teammates wore down. South Carolina finished the game on a 7-0 run, holding Iowa scoreless over the final 4:12.

"To have a roster that goes nine, 10 deep is -- it's a privilege, it really is," Staley said. "But it has to be developed slowly and the right way. There's a lot of trust that has to be built because there's some games that some of them won't play a whole lot, especially the people that's coming off the bench."

On the road to becoming the 10th undefeated national champion in Division I history, South Carolina needed everyone. It needed last year's role players to step up into starters and stars. It needed Staley to embrace change. It needed unproven players to fill key roles, even if those roles weren't as big as they might have wanted.

Over the last five months, that process came together and the wins followed. But Sunday in particular, when the Gamecocks needed it most, the bench unit -- headed by two freshmen -- came through in the biggest way.

"This whole season, we've depended on them so much, they're our depth," Paopao said. "They've done so much for this team. A lot of people sleep on them. They could start on any team in this country, but they decided to sacrifice that and play for this team and win a national championship, which we did today."