COLUMBIA, SC — Dawn Staley and her South Carolina women’s basketball team won’t be taking their foot off the accelerator anytime soon.

Their final destination is Sunday afternoon at American Airlines Center in Dallas’ where they once again hope to be cutting down a net.

The Gamecocks are the favorites to win their 2nd consecutive NCAA title — and 3rd in the past 6 Tournaments — at the Final Four this weekend in Dallas.

USC faces Iowa on Friday night, and the challenge is obvious: Stop Caitlin Clark. Iowa’s 6-0 sharp-shooting guard already has collected the Big Ten Player of the Year, Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year and the AP Player of the Year.

Clark is the woman in Division I history to total more than 900 points and 300 assists in a single season. She averages a shade above 27 points per contest for her 30-6 team, which is the best offensive team in the nation.

Yet, the Gamecocks shouldn’t be too worried. Since last year’s title, they have cleared every hurdle with a 42-game winning streak, 36 of those wins will head into this weekend. Even though Iowa is the No. 2 team, South Carolina is No. 1.

That’s the type of mindset that has become part of the fabric at South Carolina. It’s a confident stream, not an arrogant one. Furthermore, it’s also about familiarity at the top.

Since Staley arrived in 2008, the ascent to women’s basketball’s penthouse had been a steady one that has been accelerated over the past decade. Her team’s first NCAA appearance in 2011-12 resulted in a Sweet 16 appearance, and they have reached the upper echelon of the game since then.

Four Final Four appearances in the past 5 years can justify and end any argument about their status. Win or lose this weekend, the program has begun to fixture itself on the same shelf comparable to Pat Summitt’s and Geno Auriemma’s teams.

This current group has an added comfortability level with 3 consecutive visits to the Final Four.

“This team has been to 3 consecutive Final Fours, and they know what to expect,” Staley said recently. “I think they separate themselves from any other team that we’ve been a part of, and they are undefeated. They realize how people see the program.”

Staley also understands how expectations are lofty with little room for error or self-induced mistakes.

“The bar always is set pretty high for us to continue to do what we’ve done,” she said. “That’s the challenge of it each and every year, we try to top what we did the previous season.

It simply is about maintaining a steady work ethic. Fate also has been on their side.

Still, Staley knows the hard work her team has put into this season to get them to this point. And she knows there is a bit of luck and selflessness that goes into it as well.

“You’ve got to get a little lucky, and you’ve got to get some players that really believe in it and that are unified and see the bigger picture,” she said. “That is rare today because a lot of times young people only see themselves and what they want to accomplish.

“But we have been fortunate to have a group of players at South Carolina who basically clump together and want to play together to do some special things.”

As for her players, the Gamecocks have 7 seniors, led by Aliyah Boston who is considered to be one of the top 3 players in the game as well as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. The 6-5 Boston averages 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

Kamilla Cardoso has provided the perfect complement for Boston down low. The 6-7 center has averaged 9.7 points and 9 rebounds per game. Out front, guard Zia Cooke has tallied 15.1 points a game and can be an effective 3-point shooter.

The Gamecocks have averaged 80.5 points per game, and they have been stingy allowing a nation-best 51.1 points. That’s just a shade under a 30-point differential, and another reason they are 36-0.

In their tournament run, they have held opponents to under 50 points per contest. Besides the point differential, another glaring – and unbelievable – stat is their 18.1 offensive rebounds per game. Yes, that is not a typo.

Iowa averages a nation-best 87.1 points per game, but the Hawkeyes are among the worst defensive teams, allowing 70.0 points.

When you add it all up, it appears South Carolina should be in the driver’s seat, heading toward another title. LSU — with its 31 wins – or Virginia Tech would await them in Sunday’s final. If they manage to handle Clark and the Hawkeyes — like most experts believe — the Gamecocks should be cutting down the nets again Sunday.

In the big picture, another USC title will further solidify a foundation that appears to be briskly headed toward a high rise.

Staley will recognize her team’s accomplishments, but she is in it for the entire package.

“My thing is basketball,” she reflected. “It is a hell of a place to be when you win a national championship, but it is 100 times more gratifying if you accomplish something with other people. Wins and stats are fun to have, but it is about mentoring and leading these young people.

“We will lose a good number of seniors, but we have built something here that can continue to build. We look to coach first-generation graduates. To us, it is another accomplishment similar to a national championship.”