August 16, 2022

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The Passionate of Travel

USC women’s basketball backed by fans in 2022 WBB title game

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South Carolina FAMs, from left, Courtney Jackson, three-year-old Zoe Jackson, Patricia Hagood, Janice Livingston, Jameka Hagood and Jada Smalls attended the Gamecocks’ Elite Eight game against Creighton on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C.

Before the sun could rise on Thursday morning, Malinda Hodges was on the road.

She made the 30-minute trek down north from her home in Fort Mill, South Carolina to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport for a 6 a.m. flight to Minneapolis. She’d never been to the land of 10,000 lakes but knew she had to make her first trip, braving the cold and snowy climate for the Final Four.

When Hodges arrived, she met up with other South Carolina women’s basketball fans that Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley has affectionately named “FAMs.” The group of supporters had a strong showing when the Gamecocks hosted the first two rounds of the tournament, then they brought the energy to Greensboro for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

This weekend, they took over Minneapolis.

Courtney Jackson, who graduated from and works at USC, was set to arrive Sunday afternoon — less than five hours before the national championship tipoff.

“It’s just really good to see women excel that look like me,” said Jackson, who has been to two of the Gamecocks’ other Final Four appearances. “And I played basketball as well in high school. So, to see them excelling at something that I love, it’s just a really good feeling.”

Whether already in town like Hodges or arriving on game day like Jackson, the FAMs painted Minneapolis garnet and black. They were in town cheering for one more win as South Carolina tried for a second national championship, taking on UConn in the title game Sunday night.

“Just to see us at this moment, at this time, no matter what happens, this has still been a success, you know, the season and everything,” Hodges said. “It just feels like it’s just our time. It just feels like that to me.”

Making the trip

Hodges, who graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1992, joked that her husband would be a single parent for the week, holding down the fort while she watched the Gamecocks make their second straight Final Four appearance.

“In 2020, I wanted to go to New Orleans. Of course, everything got canceled,” Hodges explained. “I had everything booked. And, of course, last year it was limited in the bubble or whatever. So I definitely said this year, ‘I’m going.’ ”

She said she booked her hotel last year and took care of flight arrangements a few weeks ago. The Gamecocks alum was rooming with two other FAMs she met through social media over the years at a hotel downtown where the three had two queen beds and a sofa bed. The FAM reunion continued Friday when Hodges watched South Carolina’s Final Four contest against Louisville with fellow alums Bobby Perkins (2003) and Jennifer Redd (1988).

Even though they knew the Gamecocks would win, emotions still ran high. Perkins hardly sat in his seat, pacing the concrete steps up and down the aisles and left and right across the rows. It didn’t help that the FAM trio sat near Louisville fans. They were finally able to breathe a jubilant sigh of relief when South Carolina came away with the win, earning the program’s second trip to the national championship game.

“I was a mess,” Perkins said. “Even as a fan, you want it for them. I don’t want Aliyah (Boston) to have the same expression from last year (in the Final Four against Stanford). And that’s what I want to see. Like Dawn said, I want to see the smile.”

For Jackson, coming to Minneapolis for the first time was a family affair. Her sister, Jameka Hagood, and aunt, Patricia Hagood, were making the trip with her. They’re all season-ticket holders at Colonial Life Arena and were adding another game experience to their season.

“It’s just a nice family outing for us,” Jackson said.

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Jennifer Redd, left, and Malinda Hodges Submitted photo

Being a FAMily

As a woman working in corporate America, Hodges often has to fight for herself. It hasn’t always been easy, either. In those moments, she’s reminded of Staley, who negotiated a seven-year, $22.4 million extension with South Carolina in the fall. The deal made the former Virginia guard the highest-paid Black head coach in women’s basketball and head coach, in general, in the SEC.

“I just look up to her as a Black woman,” said Hodges, who said she was a fan of Staley during her playing days. “I’ve personally been in situations where I’ve had to negotiate my salary when I’m up for promotion. When she got that and she said that she didn’t do it necessarily for her, she did it for women in corporate America, basketball, I mean, that is profound.”

More than just basketball, this is the spirit behind the FAMs whether it’s finding inspiration from Staley or the players. In addition to seeing Staley as an inspiration, Hodges said the women on the team are the kinds of people she would want her 14-year-old daughter, Kayla, to imitate.

“I tell my daughter, ‘You have 16 other sisters because Gamecocks women’s basketball are your sisters,’ ” Hodges said. “She only has two brothers, so I’m always like, these are your sisters. … I would love for my daughter to be like them or have a role model.”

For Redd, the FAM nation is a family and represents love. Much like Texas A&M football has the 12th man, the Gamecocks women’s basketball team has a group that comprises its sixth man and extended family member.

“I think we just feel like we’re like the next people to go in the game,” Redd said. “What do we need to do? How do we get better? We love everybody.”

That support is well-noted and felt by the program. Not including the 2020-21 season when attendance was restricted due to the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, South Carolina has led the nation in attendance for seven straight years. The Gamecocks averaged 12,268 fans at Colonial Life Arena through the 2021-22 season.

Extending the support off the court, Gamecocks guard Zia Cooke said there’s been a few FAMs who she’s gotten to know on a personal level. Fellow guard Brea Beal has been recognized while out in Columbia as well.

“You can go to the store and run into somebody and they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, just freaking out,’ ” Beal said. “It’s like a family. That’s the most important thing. You’re playing in front of people that support you 100%, and it’s about the engagement after games, waving to them, getting to know them.”

One last ride

It’s almost nonsensical to ask a FAM who they thought would win the national championship: South Carolina. A score prediction inquiry was almost unanimous, too.

Perkins, Redd and Jackson believed the Gamecocks would beat UConn by 10, which is no easy feat. UConn entered the game averaging 74.5 points to South Carolina’s 71.1. At the same time, the Gamecocks have held opponents to scoring 50.7 points per outing for the third-best scoring defense in the nation.

Hodges also had a double-digit win margin, hoping to witness a 67-54 final score.

“We win it in (UConn guard Paige Buecker’s) hometown, home state,” Hodges quipped.

As the FAMs filled the stands at Target Center, the journey has been worth their while. A certain peace resonated with them about the game. Redd and Hodges refer back to Staley’s comments about divine order playing the biggest role in the outcome.

“If she thinks it’s already written, then I think it’s already written,” Redd said. “They got one step further than last year. I think they’ll win tomorrow, I do. I’m not nervous because I believe that she’s right. I mean, the path has been set.”

This story was originally published April 3, 2022 7:40 AM.

Alexis Cubit serves primarily as the Clemson sports reporter for The (Columbia) State newspaper. Before moving to South Carolina in 2021, she covered high school sports for six years and received a first-place award in the sports feature category from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors in 2019. The California native earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Baylor University in 2014.