MINNEAPOLIS — Dawn Staley was losing.
Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and player Hall of Famer, had coached at Temple in her hometown of Philadelphia for eight years, but the team couldn’t go beyond that. of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
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 Saturday. “I wanted to win the national championship.”
Under Staley, the Gamecocks appeared in 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, won four trips to the Final Four and, after Sunday night, won two national championships. It’s been a slow burn for Staley, who has rebuilt South Carolina’s program from the ground up. This Sunday’s victory over Connecticut, the most decorated women’s basketball program, suggests a changing of the guard in the sport.
Staley built a powerful team led by Aliyah Boston, who won awards as the best player and defenseman. Starting guards Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Destanni Henderson, Staley said, have “logged a lot of minutes together” and, as a result, they play like “shorthand writing.”
“You don’t have to say much,” Staley said. “You can just point, and they know the switch.”
His lists have proven themselves time and time again. Staley led the Gamecocks to their only No. 1 ranking in program history and sent eight Gamecocks to the WNBA draft, including 2018 No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson, who helped to bring home the Gamecocks’ first national title in 2017.
Sunday night, Wilson was on hand to cheer on his alma mater.
UConn, led by coach Geno Auriemma, laid the foundation for much of that success, Staley said. Auriemma has won 11 championships at UConn, which he has been in charge of since 1985.
“Whether people believe it or not, he’s helped our game grow tremendously,” Staley said. “I think a lot of what we’re able to do and achieve is because of their success. I think the folks at UConn treat their women’s basketball team like a sport. They have to because of all the winnings and successes, but you could take a page out of their book.
Prior to the championship game, neither coach had lost a national championship game. Then Staley defeated Auriemma.
“I told Dawn after the game that they were the best team in the country all year,” Auriemma said Sunday night.
As South Carolina pushes people to think beyond UConn as the gold standard of women’s college basketball, Staley has been reluctant to call her program a dynasty. But she acknowledged that the playing field was changing.
“What I think is important as a black woman and as a coach is how 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 it right and keep our game in a place where the integrity is intact because that’s how we’re going to grow,” she added.
While South Carolina’s two titles may seem like baby steps from UConn’s 11 championships, the sport is no longer dominated by one team. This season has shown how women’s basketball is in a very different era, with a wealth of talent spread across the country, as evidenced by six double-digit seeded teams advancing to the knockout stages.
South Carolina is a member of the Southeastern Conference, known primarily for soccer. Staley, thanks to her success, brought much more attention to women’s basketball at her university. She positioned herself as the highest-paid black woman coaching a team and cultivated a loyal fanbase that led the country to witness women’s college basketball for seven consecutive seasons.
“When she got here, it wasn’t all rainbows and stuff,” said Beal, a junior guard, before Sunday’s game. “I think looking back on that and how she built a great community, a great place, I think just having our own legacy and building it for us was key.”
Candace Parker of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky said South Carolina is charting its own course.
“I would say the next USC is the next USC, I think everyone is looking for who they want to be, their own identity,” Parker said after Sunday’s game. “I think they are what they are and they do what they are supposed to be.”
If Boston pulls it off, Sunday night’s win is just the start.
“I think over the last two 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 that we have here”. .”