When Mississippi State and South Carolina tip off tonight in the NCAA Division I National Championship in Dallas, lots of fan may not have decided which team to root for. Some will say that women’s basketball is the victor no matter who wins just because UConn will not be vying for its fifth title in a row. Even South Carolina coach Dawn Staley voiced that sentiment in her pre-game press conference yesterday.
“Sometimes we lose sight of how good women’s basketball is because of UConn’s dominance… it takes UConn’s losing to appreciate what’s taken place (in the women’s game) over the past few years,” she said.
Staley went on to describe how hard she and other top tier programs have worked to create the “layers below what UConn has been able to do over the past decade.” When you’re up against a juggernaut like Connecticut, after all, it’s tough to compete for recruits, for attention, and for the hearts and minds of women’s basketball fans.
Staley’s done a masterful job of getting South Carolina to the national stage, poised for a championship, in her nine seasons as coach of the Gamecocks. She took over a program in 2008 that was an SEC also-ran (because of Tennessee’s dominance). The program slowly but surely improved every year, but things really started taking off in 2012, when the Gamecocks beat Tennessee for the first time in the program’s history and made it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. Staley credits the signing in 2011 of homegrown talent, Aleighsa Welch, with starting the turnaround. Welch, who graduated in 2015 and was drafted by the Chicago Sky of the WNBA, was a force inside, but more importantly, helped change the team’s culture.
“Once Aleighsa came to us, the majority of our team believed in our vision,” Staley said. “From a culture standpoint, it started to feel like family.”
Three years later, high school player of the year A’ja Wilson, who lives 13 miles from the SC campus, chose Staley’s program over Connecticut and Tennessee. Last year, Allisha Gray, whom Staley calls “the silent assassin” transferred from North Carolina.
“I don’t know if we’d ever get another No. 1 player in the country if she were not from our area,” Staley said of Wilson. “Having top players in our backyard has made this dream (of making it to the final game) come true much quicker.”
Buying into Staley’s vision means loving basketball enough to live it 24/7, as part of a basketball family. That’s certainly been Staley’s way, from the time she was a kid growing up in the projects of North Philadelphia to her time at the University of Virginia — where she was a two-time ACC Player of the Year, two-time National Player of the Year, and three-time Kodak All-American
That vision matured in 1996 when she was a member of the U.S. Olympic team under the tutelage (or maybe thumb is a better word) of Coach Tara Vanderveer.
“I thought about how we sacrificed a year of our life,” recalled Staley during her induction speech into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. “We thought Tara was out to kill us, but it made us depend on each other…. Silver was not an option. She changed the way I approached the game.”
Now Staley, who will be the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 2020 (replacing Geno Auriemma), is hoping to assume the mantle of head coach of a national championship team. To make that happen, South Carolina must defeat a team on a tremendous roll — and one that is also on a tremendous high.
In Mississippi State’s historic upset Friday night, the score was oh so close, but the Bulldogs dominated UConn rebounding-wise. South Carolina has an All-American on the inside to compete with 6-7 Mississippi State center Tiara McCowan on the glass. “We’ve gotta find a way to keep A’ja on the floor” and out of foul trouble, Staley admits.
The next big task is to find a way to slow down Mississippi State’s phonomenal guard “itty bitty” Morgan William, who hit the winning jump shot against the Huskies Friday night. In their first meeting of the season, which South Carolina won by three, William only scored four points on 2-11 shooting. In the second meeting for the SEC championship, William scored 14, as the Gamecocks won by 11. While Staley thinks junior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore can keep William from scoring at will the way she did against Baylor and Connecticut, she also knows that, “If she (William) gets in a groove it’s going to be a long night for us.”
Whoever the winner tonight, a new light is being shone on women’s college basketball. And we won’t have to come away from the game saying, “same-old, same-old.”
“UConn’s run was a beautiful thing to watch,” said Staley. “But it’s great to know someone else is going to win the national championship.”