Minneapolis – Dawn Staley was losing.
Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Famer as a player, had trained at Temple, in her hometown, Philadelphia, for eight years, but the team couldn’t get past the first weekend of the NCAA Championship.
So when Staley took over as coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team in 2008, she had one goal in mind. “I wanted to win,” Staley said on Saturday. “I wanted to win the national championship.”
Under Staley, the Gamecocks have racked up 10 consecutive NCAA championships, earned four trips to the Final Four, and, after Sunday night, won two national championships. This has been slow for Staley, who has rebuilt the South Carolina program from the ground up. Sunday’s win was against Connecticut State, the women’s basketball program’s most crowning, signaling the changing of the guard in the sport.
Staley built a strong team led by High Boston, who won awards as the best player and defender. Staley said starting guards Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Destanni Henderson, “scored a lot of minutes together,” and as a result play like “shortwriting.”
“You don’t have to say much,” Staley said. “You can just point, and they know the switch.”
Her lists have proven themselves time and time again. Staley led the Gamecocks to the only number one ranking in program history and sent eight Gamecocks to the WNBA draft, including the #1 overall pick in 2018, A’ja Wilson, who helped bring the Gamecocks first national title in 2017.
On Sunday night, Wilson was on hand to get her alma mater on.
Staley said UConn, led by coach Geno Auriemma, laid the foundation for much of that success. Auriemma has won 11 championships at UConn, where he has been in charge since 1985.
“Whether people believe it or not, it has helped our game grow tremendously,” Staley said. “I think a lot of what we can do and get behind is behind their success. I think the people at UConn treat their women’s basketball team like a sport. They are forced to because of all that success and all the success, but you can take a page out of their book” .
Going to the championship match, none of the coaches lost the national championship match. Then Staley defeated Auriemma.
“I told Dawn after the game, they’ve been the best team in the country all year,” Orima said Sunday night.
As South Carolina pushes people to think beyond UConn as the gold standard in girls’ college basketball, Staley hesitated to call her program a dynasty. But she admitted that the playing field was changing.
“What I think is important as a black woman and coach is the way you do it, like the example you set for other coaches to follow,” Staley said after Sunday’s game.
“I just want to be a great example of how to do things the right way and keep our game in a place where integrity doesn’t compromise, because that’s how we’re going to grow,” she added.
While the South Carolina title may seem like small steps compared to UConn’s 11 championships, the sport is no longer dominated by one team. This season showed how women’s basketball is in a very different era, with a wealth of talent spread across the country, partly featured on six double-digit teams reaching the round of 16.
South Carolina is a member of the Southeastern Conference known primarily for football. Staley, through her success, attracted more interest in women’s basketball at her university. She has positioned herself as the black woman who coaches the highest-paid team and has built a loyal fan base who has led the country in attending women’s college basketball for seven consecutive seasons.
“When I first got here, it wasn’t all rainbows and other things,” Bale, a junior goalkeeper, said before Sunday’s game. “I think, just looking at that and how she’s built such a wonderful community, a wonderful place, I think just having our own legacy and building that for us was key.”
WNBA’s Chicago Sky’s Candice Parker said South Carolina is making its own way.
“I would say the next USC is the next USC, and I think everyone is chasing who they want to be, their own identity,” Parker said after Sunday’s game. “I think they are who they are and do what they should be.”
If Boston is on its way, Sunday night’s win is just the start.
“I think over the last couple of years you’ve been able to see this program and how it continues to grow,” Boston said, adding that more players will want to go to South Carolina because of “the atmosphere we’re in here.”
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