Staley's master class: A year later, Gamecocks are perfect after all

CLEVELAND — Dressed in a Louis Vuitton metallic-silver jacket, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had a golden afternoon in Cleveland, and was moved to tears after an emotional group hug with her team and players. After a difficult end to last season, the Gamecocks had a perfect 38-0 finish on Sunday.

“They weren’t going to be denied,” Staley said as confetti fell around her at the conclusion of the Gamecocks’ 87-75 national championship victory over Iowa. “It doesn’t always end like you want it to end. I’m just super proud of where I work. It’s unbelievable.

The moment was a stark contrast to a year ago, when another perfect South Carolina season came to a crashing halt as Iowa — yes, the same team the Gamecocks beat Sunday — upended them in Dallas in the national semifinals.

“You have to let young people be who they are,” Staley said. “But you also have to guide and navigate them. They made history. They etched their names in the history books.

That South Carolina team was an even heavier favorite, with former national player of the year and future No. 1 WNBA draft pick Aliyah Boston and four other senior starters. After the devastating loss, Staley told her team in the locker room how much she appreciated them.

“And those of us who were graduating, we went around the room and were talking to each of the returning players,” Boston said. “Just to say, ‘We know you guys got this next year.’

“And now here we are.”

This year, in what might be Staley’s best performance on the sideline, she was named national coach of the year not just because her team went unbeaten — the 10th women’s team to do so in the NCAA era — but how she did it. South Carolina is the first team in the past 25 seasons to reach the Final Four, let alone go undefeated, without returning any starters.



South Carolina wins national championship to complete perfect season

South Carolina outlasts Iowa to win its third national championship and complete its 38-0 perfect season.

Staley’s Gamecocks are 74-1 over the past two seasons despite two completely different starting lineups. In today’s transfer portal world, Staley convinced players to stick with the process, waiting their turn for bigger roles — and brought in one key piece in point guard Te-Hina Paopao.

The ability to multitask with an eye on the future was key to the success, Boston said. While Staley was guiding a veteran squad to near perfection in 2022-23, she was also developing the younger talent on that team to be ready for their moment.

“It’s her ability to do both,” Boston said. “Last year, the starters knew what we wanted to do. The second string, who are now starters, would come in [to practice] and work just as hard.

“Coach Staley never prioritized one group versus the other. If we did things right, we did it right. If we didn’t, she would correct us. And same for the subs. If they didn’t get it right, they would stay on the court until they did.”

A’ja Wilson, who has won two WNBA titles and MVP awards with the Las Vegas Aces, played at South Carolina from 2014-18 and won the 2017 NCAA title. She said Staley has maintained her high standards while also changing with the times, adapting to the portal and NIL era.

“She’s a lot more jokey,” Wilson said. “I think she kind of has to be with this generation, with NIL. When I was in school we couldn’t have phones [the night before games]. But now they have to because that’s their job, their brand. So you can see her loosen up a little bit because that’s how she can connect to her players. But that’s Coach Staley. She’s going to find a way.”

Staley is now in an elite group of Division I women’s basketball coaches with three or more NCAA titles. UConn’s Geno Auriemma has 11, the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee eight, LSU’s Kim Mulkey four and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer three.

Auriemma, whose Huskies lost to Iowa in Friday’s national semifinals, has led UConn to 23 Final Four appearances, and has reached the final weekend of the season every year but one since 2008. UConn has won 11 national championships, the most recent in 2016. Staley has won all three of her NCAA titles since then.

“She’s a tremendous recruiter, tremendous motivator, a tremendous example,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “For a while it was Pat, then it was Geno. And now it’s Dawn setting the bar for everyone else.”

But it wasn’t always easy for Staley this season, Boston said.

“She talks so much about how she didn’t think they were going to be this good,” Boston said. “They stressed her out all the time.”

Earlier this season on “College GameDay,” Staley said she considered early retirement over the summer. It might have been a little hyperbole, but falling short last season took time to get over.

Boston, Zia Cooke, Victaria Saxton, Brea Beal and Kierra Fletcher finished their college careers, as did multipurpose reserve Laeticia Amihere. All but Fletcher were taken in the 2023 WNBA draft.

The core of that group was 32-1 and ranked No. 1 going into the 2020 NCAA tournament that was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then in the 2021 Final Four semifinals, the Gamecocks lost 66-65 to Stanford, with then-sophomore Boston’s putback attempt at the buzzer rimming out. They won the national championship in 2022, beating UConn in the final. Then were upset by Iowa 77-73 in the 2023 semifinals.

It was a successful four-year period, with a national championship and three SEC tournament titles. But not putting that final bow on greatness with an NCAA title last year drove Staley this season. And now she has a third national championship.

Staley had replicas of the 2017 national championship trophy — the program’s first title — made and gave them to everyone who had been a part of her journey, including all of her former teammates at Virginia, which she led to three Final Four appearances as a player. And she has built a family in Columbia since taking over South Carolina in 2008.

“We come back to practices, we talk to the players,” Boston said. “It’s just the family aspect of playing for South Carolina. And this year, you could see their maturity level come through.”

The Gamecocks will lose starting center Kamilla Cardoso from this season’s team, as she is headed to the WNBA draft April 15. But most of this team will return, and South Carolina is expected to be in the hunt for another title in 2025.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top