Don't be fooled when South Carolina women's basketball appears challenged. The kill is coming.

If you can’t see South Carolina play in person, find a cat. Give that cat a toy and watch it bat the toy back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until WHACK! The toy goes flying across the room without warning, the cat having decided it’s had enough of this game.

That’s South Carolina.

The defending national champions are so skilled, so deep and so unflappable it’s only a matter of time before they exert their will. And when they do, opponents can be forgiven if they’re just praying for the end, that’s how deflating the Gamecocks are.

For the first 15 minutes Monday night, second-seeded Maryland gave South Carolina as good a game as it could. It pushed the pace. It bodied the Gamecocks in the paint. It closed off angles. It went right at South Carolina in a way few other teams have the courage to do.

By halftime, the game was effectively over.

In a 3½-minute span, South Carolina ripped off a 14-4 run, scoring on all but one possession. What had been a 1-point Maryland lead became a 10-point Gamecocks advantage.

“Their size, their length, their depth wears you out as the game continues on,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said.

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South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrates with the Gamecocks mascot, "Cocky," after defeating Maryland in the Elite Eight.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrates with the Gamecocks mascot, "Cocky," after defeating Maryland in the Elite Eight.

There is little drop off from South Carolina’s starters to its bench, making their rotations more like hockey shifts, and the Terrapins could only fend off the waves for so long. Worse, by trying to do so, they picked up an albatrossian number of fouls.

But that’s what South Carolina does. It grinds you into submission. The only question is when in the game it’s going to happen.

“The game had to settle down,” coach Dawn Staley said. “Obviously Maryland came out and played extremely fast. I thought it took us a while to get our footing and make adjustments to how they were playing us.

“This team just wants to win. They don’t care how it looks, they just want to do what’s necessary for us to score more points. They know how to win, they know how to win with different styles of play. The main thing is they just don’t want to lose.”

It’s hard to imagine they could. To see how they would.

South Carolina has not lost a game since the SEC tournament championship last year. That’s 42 wins in a row, for those keeping track. Only five teams have gotten within double digits of the Gamecocks this season, and they are beating teams in the NCAA Tournament by an average of more than 22 points.

The Gamecocks have done all this despite carrying a burden that’s two-fold: Everyone wants to steal their crown and every opponent wants to be the one to finally hang a loss on them. South Carolina’s commitment to avoiding the disappointment and anger that follows a loss is even greater, however.

“We know what it feels like to lose. We know what it feels like to be sent home,” said Brea Beal, one of five players left from the team that lost to Stanford on a last-second shot in the Final Four two years ago.

“We don’t want that feeling. Especially this time of year.”

The Gamecocks will play Iowa in the Final Four on Friday, a game that has been hotly anticipated for two seasons now. South Carolina has Aliyah Boston, the national player of the year, while Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is likely to claim the honors this year.

They are the two most dominant players in college basketball, though in very different ways. Boston is quietly – and ruthlessly – efficient, finishing with her 82nd career double-double Monday with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Five assists, too.

Clark is a live wire, making baskets from the logo and zipping passes all over the court. She had a 41-point triple-double Sunday night against Louisville.

“I want to enjoy this,” Staley said when asked about the matchup. “I want to enjoy our team and something special they’ve been able to accomplish today."

There the Gamecocks go, biding their time again.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Carolina remains ruthless en route to women's NCAA Final Four