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Random thoughts on the 2018 Women’s Final Four

Banners hanging from the Nationwide Arena ceiling this weekend attest to the exciting 36-year history of the NCAA’s involvement in the Women’s Basketball Final Four. There have been some thrilling games over the years for sure. Most recently last year’s semi-final, in which Mississippi State ended UConn’s 111-game win streak on Morgan William’s buzzer beater, provided a shocking finish that looped on highlight reels even during the run-up to this year’s Final Four. Having witnessed  a couple of Final Fours recently (New Orleans and Nashville)  where UConn runaways made the final game anti-climactic, I’d decided to skip the trip to Dallas in 2017. But that Morgan William shot convinced me that I needed to be in Columbus in person in 2018. Just in case.

Columbus, Ohio didn’t seem like an exciting venue for a Final Four, but the arena was packed, and the place was rocking for the semifinals Friday night. My thoughts went back to the first time the tournament was held in Ohio (Cincinnati in 1997). That was the first time I had ever attended the Final Four in person. My sister and I sat almost directly behind the Stanford bench and watched as Old Dominion provided the overtime heroics with a come-from-behind victory over Stanford, 83-82. Guard Ticha Penicheiro scored 18 points in that game, including the game-winning free throw. For the final game, we watched Pat Summitt coach the Lady Vols to a 68-59 victory from behind their bench. The Lady Vols came back from a first-half deficit to win that game with Chamique Holdsclaw (only a sophomore) scoring 24 points.  The other notable thing about that tournament (besides it being the first for us) was the fact that all four coaches were women:  Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, Old Dominion’s Wendyu Larry and ND’s Muffett McGraw, something local newspapers trumpeted as the wave of the future.

This time around my sister and I sat high above center court in Columbus, and noted that McGraw was the only female hoping to coach her team to a national championship. Mississippi State’s Vic Shaefer, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, and Louisville’s Jeff Walz were all given more of a chance to win the national title than McGraw — mainly because McGraw’s squad would have to beat UConn in the semifinal to make it to the final game. Her team also had the shortest bench, having lost four players to ACL tears this year — including Brianna Turner, whose 263 blocks in the first three years of her career (not to mention the 14.5 points per game and 7.5 rebounds) had made her the biggest name at Notre Dame since Skylar Diggins had graduated in 2013.

The UConn-Notre Dame game was the second of the night. Mississippi State had provided the heroics in game one, which featured 15 lead changes in regulation.  Leading by 1 and with the ball, Louisville had scored an uncontested layup with only a few seconds on the clock. My sister turned to me and said, “They might regret taking that shot,” and sure enough, MSU’s Roshunda Johnson hit a huge 3-pointer to tie the score and send the game into overtime. There they dominated the deflated Cardinals and earned their spot in the Finals by a 10-point margin.

When the second semi-final started, we didn’t give Notre Dame much of a chance, even after they went out to a pretty good 13-point lead at the end of the first quarter. But when UConn came roaring back and was actually up by 7 at the half, we decided to leave our balcony seats (and the incredibly obnoxious UConn fans in front of us) to find a better place to watch the second half. By the time we found our new seats (in the Elevator Restaurant down the street), Notre Dame had come roaring back to tie it. We and the other restaurant patrons watched on the big screen over the bar and roared as the Irish’s Arike Ogunbowale hit the game-winning shot to send UConn to defeat.

Most women’s bball fans know the rest of the story. Another Arike Ogunbowale three-pointer gave Notre Dame the well-deserved championship against Mississippi State on Easter Sunday night. Many MSU fans bemoaned the officiating, but the officials missed a lot on both sides. Mississippi’s Teaira McCowan had gotten away with her share of travels on rebounds and put-backs in the post. As had been the case in all three games, the winner had to put aside all the distractions and make the big time shot when they needed it. That’s what the Fighting Irish did.

Parity is a word that gets tossed around a lot when people complain about how women’s college basketball isn’t as exciting as the men’s version. But we left the arena, as Notre Dame was cutting down the nets, feeling as if we really had watched the best Final Four ever. It was Muffett McGraw’s 800th win and second national championship (The last one was in 2001). To say we were glad we were there to witness it is a bit of an understatement. That we’ll be in Tampa for the 2019 Final Four also goes without saying.

 

 

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Chamique Holdsclaw belongs in the WBHOF

Chamique Holdsclaw greets fans at a Washington Mystics home game last fall. She and other Mystics alumnae were honored during the game. Photo by Joanne Lannin

Chamique Holdsclaw is one of the finalists for induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. The final list of inductees will be announced on Feb. 12. So how come one of the greatest female basketball players ever isn’t a member yet, even though her professional career ended in 2010 (you have to be retired for three years before you can be nominated). And even though she was a WNBA all-star, a member of an Olympic team, a college Player of the Year, and the star of three NCAA National Championship teams at Tennessee from 1996-1999?

The delay is an indication of the struggles Holdsclaw has endured because of her mental health issues. It was only natural for those in a position to nominate her to hesitate until now. How do you make a case for someone who pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of aggravated assault, criminal damage and possession of a firearm after going into a rage and smashing the windows of her ex-girlfriend’s car with a baseball bat?

By her own admission in her 2012 autobiography, Holdsclaw was on shaky ground for much of her pro career, and even before then. As “Mique” was putting up incredible numbers at Tennessee and being called the female Michael Jordan, Coach Pat Summitt was worried about the mental health of her star player. Holdsclaw also revealed in her 2012 book that she’d gone into a deep depression after her grandmother, who raised her back in Queens, NY, died in 2002 and that she had attempted suicide in 2006.

But in 2016, Holdsclaw was the subject of an excellent documentary film, MIND/GAME, which details her struggles and the struggles of other athletes with bipolar disease. As her beloved coach, Pat Summitt, did after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Holdsclaw has decided to use her celebrity to raise awareness about her condition. The 40-year-old has been traveling around the country for the past year, speaking on college campuses on behalf of mental health advocates. Her Facebook page and Instagram accounts are full of pictures of her posing with kids and grown-ups on college campuses and in communities from Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Oxnard College in California. She continues to reach out and share her story in the hopes of helping young athletes understand how the pressures of competition can exacerbate depression — and in the hopes of saving lives.

Still, even as she becomes a star on a different stage, Holdsclaw seems ready to claim her place in women’s basketball history. Last fall, she was honored by the Washington Mystics, along with other Mystic alumni, at their final home game of the season. Holdsclaw played for three teams during her decade in the WNBA, but the Mystics are clearly her home team. In 1999, the Mystics had the number one pick and selected her to be the face of their franchise. She earned WNBA Rookie of the Year honors that season and was selected for the U.S. Olympic team (but she couldn’t compete in Sydney because of a stress fracture in her foot). Holdsclaw averaged close to 20 points per game for the first seven years of her career and ended her run with the Atlanta Dream in 2010 with a total of 4,716 points and 2,126 rebounds.

Those of us who watched her lead Tennessee to three National championshiops in the 90s will always think of her as one of the GOATs of the women’s game. That’s why she’s a shoo-in for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s safe to say that the Hall needs to honor “Mique,” not just for her triumphs on the court, but also for her triumphs off of it.

Formula for success at Bentley

(Waltham, MA, 01/17/18) Bentley University coach Barbara Stevens encourages her players as she wins her 1,000th career game, 78-66 over Adelphi in Waltham on Wednesday, January 17, 2018. Staff photo by Christopher Evans

A Bentley loss in women’s basketball is about as rare as a sunny winter’s day in Moscow. But midway through the first half last Wednesday night, it looked like Bentley University’s women’s basketball team might not get their coach her 1,000th career victory that night. Lots of alumni, fans, and media had traveled to the gym on the Waltham, Mass. campus for this Division II game, hoping to see Barbara Stevens join the exclusive 1000-win club. Only four other women’s basketball coaches had won as many games: Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Sylvia Hatchell, and Tara VanDerveer.

With a record of 16-1, there was no doubt that Bentley would get Stevens number 1,000 sometime soon, but at this point, the Falcons were down 22-13 to Adelphi University, a team that had beaten Bentley four straight times over the past couple of years. Stevens called timeout to calm her team, and the Falcons proceeded to outscore Adelphi 27-9, closing out the first half with a 14-0 run. Adelphi made two more valiant efforts to get back into the game in the second half. Bentley responded with decisive runs both times. The rest, including a confetti shower when the final horn sounded, is history.

Nina Houghton of Portland, Maine is a Bentley alumni who played for Stevens from 1987 to 1989. She didn’t make it to Bentley for the big game (it snowed a lot that day, and besides, she didn’t want to jinx the team). Houghton live-streamed the game and emailed her congratulations to Coach Stevens at its conclusion. Houghton says she wasn’t surprised by the team’s response to Stevens’ timely timeout.

“She never panics,” said Houghton, who starred for Cape Elizabeth High School back in the early 80s. “It’s a testament to her understanding of the game and her players … good coaches know just what to say.”

Another former player from Maine, Bri Fecteau, also live-streamed the game from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and echoed Houghton’s reaction. “I pictured her in the huddle telling the girls in that calming voice, ‘Okay, the jitters should be out…so let’s go do it.’ “

Stevens began her coaching career at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. at the age of 23. At Clark, she notched the first 123 wins of her career. She came to Bentley in 1986 by way of UMass-Amherst, where her teams were 34-49. It was there, she has said, that she realized she didn’t need to be coaching Division I, or advancing on the women’s basketball career ladder, to be happy. “For me personally, it’s not about… the ego,” she told the Associated Press a day before the game with Adelphi. “It was about my happiness, feeling that I could make a difference.”

Houghton and Fecteau agree that this “team-first, ego-last” philosophy has been the key to Stevens’ success. She consciously recruits players who fit into that mold, something that is harder and harder to do in this age of AAU super teams and parent-coddled “stars.”

“We’ve all been on teams where personalities don’t mesh,” says Houghton. “When you’re spending 10 months out of the year with (teammates), personalities are not insignificant… she’d never recruit someone with a big ego.”

Fecteau got to see Stevens’ philosophy in action during her visit to Bentley as a high school player. Fecteau had hopes of landing a spot on a Division I team after her successful Westbrook High School career. Her decision came down to two Division I schools (Providence and UMaine) and Bentley. The first time she saw a Stevens-led practice, she made up her mind that Bentley was the place for her.

“The way the team paid attention when she spoke … just the way she teaches and breaks everything down … I was sold,” says Fecteau, who was a member of the teams that won Stevens’ 500th and 600th career games. “You’ll never come across a Bentley grad who’d say ‘I wish I’d played Division I.’ “

Of course, success helps to keep her players happy. But it’s pretty clear they also buy in because Stevens never forgets she’s not just coaching basketball — she’s coaching people.

Houghton had been recruited by Stevens’ predecessor Kathy Sanborn, who moved on after her freshman year to coach at her alma mater, UNH. Right away, Houghton says she knew that she and the team were lucky to have Stevens. Houghton recalls how Stevens called her in her dorm room one day when she was laid up with bronchitis. Houghton had been the Northeast-8 Conference Rookie of the Year her freshman year and had started all 32 games for Bentley, but things weren’t going as well for the sophomore center.

“She told me it was going to be OK … she could tell I needed it. That meant the world to me,” says Houghton, who wound up her career as Bentley’s all-time leader in blocks and third in defensive rebounds.

Three other conversations with Stevens have stuck with Houghton over the years. The first was when Stevens took her aside and told her to leave some of her “niceness” on the sidelines during games. The second was when she lost playing time to a younger player during her senior year. The third was when Coach Stevens reached out to Houghton after her husband passed away seven years ago.
“She’s still ‘Coach’ to this day,” says Houghton. “She’s a mentor. She’s an icon…we all adored her.”

Stevens has also been a mentor to Fecteau, who wound up third in career assists at Bentley and went on to become an assistant coach at Harvard for several years. Fecteau predicts that Stevens, in her 41st year of coaching, is far from finished roaming the Bentley sidelines.

“She gets attached to the kids and gets invested in their lives,” says Fecteau. “It’s like a second family.”

Plus, after Stevens’ Bentley team went 35-0 and captured the program’s first-ever NCAA Division II championship four years ago (with a come-from-behind 73-65 win over West Texas A&M), Fecteau wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Stevens keeps going until she’s helped her players win another crown.

“She doesn’t allow many people to outwork her,” Fecteau says. “She’s a 10 when it comes to competitiveness.”

Steady wins the race

I started playing WNBA fantasy games this summer just for kicks. At $1 a game, I’m not all that invested in the outcomes. But it’s been a great way to learn more about and watch the progress of some of the rising stars in the WNBA. Ironically, one rising star who has caught my eye night after night this summer is an 8-year veteran, Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley.

Allie Quigley scored more than 2,000 points at DePaul.

Under first year head coach Amber Stocks, Quigley has started all 24 games she’s appeared in this season after starting just eight of her 168 previous career games.

The DePaul alumnus is averaging a career-high 17 points, 3.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. She’s also shooting a career-best 52.9 from the floor and 47.1 percent from three (more than 10 games played). She leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage and is eighth in field goal percentage.

She not only made the WNBA all-star team and scored 14 points off the bench, she won the 3-point shooting contest. Seattle’s Sue Bird, who played with Quigley in Seattle back in 2012, was one of the competitors eliminated in the opening round of the three-point contest. She says she picked Quigley to win.

“I thought so too,” echoed Diana Taurasi in an interview after the game.

Quigley has been kicking around the WNBA since she graduated from DePaul in 2008. At DePaul, she was one of only four players to reach the 2,000-point plateau. Quigley was selected by Seattle with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2008 draft. She bounced around from Phoenix to Indiana to San Antonio, and back to Seattle, but she only played in a total of 35 WNBA games. Overseas, meanwhile, she enjoyed the most success in Hungary, where she averaged 16 points a game in 2010, 2011 and 2012. After three seasons in Hungary, she applied for and was granted dual citizenship, making her eligible to play for the Hungarian National team in 2012.

Allie Quigley takes it to the rim in a game for the Hungarian National team.

Allie made the Chicago Sky roster in 2013 but rarely started. The 31-year-old’s emergence this season has come at least partially due to the trade that sent Elena Delle Donne to Washington. Delle Donne, one of the most dominant players in the WNBA, formed a back court with Courtney Vandersloot, another formidable guard for the Sky, that made the Sky WNBA playoff regulars from 2013 to 2016. Still, Quigley earned sixth-player awards in 2014 and 2015. In that role, she often influenced the outcome of the game with a stepback three, an off-balance runner in the lane, or a no-look pass for an assist.

The Sky certainly do miss Delle Donne, and their current 12-16 record reflects that. But they have gone 8-4 since July 1 and Quigley is one of the big reasons why.

DePaul coach Doug Bruno says Quigley’s persistence is “legendary.”

“Allie’s persistence is legendary,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno told me earlier this summer. “Diana (Taurasi) always loved the way she played.”

Coach Bruno didn’t necessarily predict WNBA stardom, but he certainly isn’t surprised by Quigley’s success. Bruno, who played ball at DePaul with Quigley’s high school coach, Mike Gillespie, had been hearing about her since she was a fifth grader. “She was one of those kids at camp whose ball always goes in,” he recalls of the young Allie Quigley.

When it came time to seriously start recruiting her, Bruno recalls that his assistant at the time, Maggie Dixon, wondered if Quigley had the all-around game to play at the Division I level. But Bruno, being a local guy, knew about her basketball pedigree. The whole Quigley clan is legendary around Joliet, Illinois, including her two brothers and her younger sister Sam. Allie’s mother Chris was a “storied athlete” from Joliet, whose number was retired by The University of St. Francis in 1983.

“Everyone in Joliet tells us she’s the best athlete they ever had,” Allie told ESPN in 2013. “She’s even on a mural in town.”

Allie’s father, Pat Quigley, died when Allie was 8 years old. He too was a University of St. Francis grad, and the school renamed their basketball court the Pat Quigley court after his death. The family pedigree — and her lights out shooting — convinced Bruno that a 5-10, 140-pound guard could make it at DePaul.

“You can say she’s only a shooter, but she’s a shooter with strength,” he says. “Defenders think they can junkyard dog guard her. She can get to the rim before they realize it’s a mistake.”

Now that WNBA defenders are taking her seriously, Quigley is still shooting lights out, but she’s also finding other ways to help the team. On Aug. 10, she dished out a career-high 9 assists to go along with her 19 points to help Chicago defeat San Antonio.

“Some kids, when they don’t make it, say it was all politics,” says Coach Bruno. “You can blame that or you can hunker down, get in the frickin gym, and do the work to make them HAVE to keep you…that’s what Allie did.”

Who is the GOAT in women’s basketball?

Diana Taurasi earned accolades from all around the basketball world last week when she broke the WNBA’s all-time regular-season scoring record. She scored 19 points on June 17 to give her 7,494 in 377 regular-season WNBA games, surpassing Tina Thompson’s 7,488 in 496 games. In a tweet, LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant complimented her on her work ethic and consistency over her 12-year career, and National Champion South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley tweeted out: “We all know that’s just a snippet of your special skill set.”

Many of the tweets and messages were titled or had the hashtag “GOAT” (Greatest of all Time, for those not up on the latest acronyms). Her body of work certainly puts her in that conversation. Taurasi was the driving force behind three of UConn’s titles from 2001 to 2004. She has led the Phoenix Mercury to two titles since she was drafted number one in 2004. Before she broke the all-time scoring record, she already owned the top two single-season scoring marks in WNBA history (2006, 2008), the league record for 20-point and 30-point games, and has led the league in scoring a WNBA-record five times (2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011), according to WNBA.com. Taurasi, who turned 35 on June 11, also has three Olympic gold medals.

But is she the GOAT? I have no quarrel with the notion that Taurasi is the best player of the WNBA era (which enters its 21st year in 2017). But two players, in my mind, still stand alongside Taurasi as potential GOATS. Yes, the competition wasn’t at the same level as it is today. But Ann Meyers and Cheryl Miller were transformative players in their time (the 70s and early 80s). Their games changed and evolved as competition increased after the passage of Title IX, and they each took women’s basketball to heights unseen and unheard of before they came along. If you go back and read magazine and newspaper headlines from those years, you’ll see how they both made people outside of women’s basketball sit up and take notice and (sometimes grudgingly) admit that there was something to this women’s game. Both Meyers and Miller are Olympic medalists. They are also both in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that if they played today, they’d still be heads above their competition.

Miller led the University of Southern California to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1983-84, and was a three-time Naismith Award winner — a distinction no other college female could claim until Brianna Stewart came along in 2014. In 1986, Sports Illustrated named her the best male or female player in college basketball. She scored 3,018 points for a 23.6 career scoring average, and she averaged 20.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.3 blocks in 16 NCAA Tournament games. She was a two-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player and still holds the tournament records for field-goal percentage (79.4, 121-for-245) and most free throws made (91). She also was the driving force behind the US Olympic team’s big win at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Ann Meyers played before the introduction of the Naismith Awards for women. But she also had a stellar college career, won an Olympic silver medal, and can boast of a number of firsts in women’s basketball. She was the first player to be offered a full scholarship after the advent of Title IX (by UCLA in 1974), the first woman to be signed to an NBA contract by the Indiana Pacers in 1980. (She failed to make the team after a three-day tryout). And she was the first player selected in the Women’s Professional Basketball League draft in 1978 — where she was league MVP for the 1979-1980 season.

So who’s the GOAT in women’s basketball? Taurasi is the latest, but not necessarily the greatest of all time. I’d prefer to honor all three womens basketball pioneers as superstars who took their sport to the next level. So, let’s celebrate Taurasi as the greatest of this time and let’s also remember the greats who paved the way for her.

This entry was posted on June 22, 2017. 1 Comment

Thoughts on a new Division 1 Women’s basketball champion

A’Ja Wilson hoists the trophy. ESPN screenshot

All week I’ve been kicking myself for not going to Dallas for what was a truly historic women’s Final Four.  Sure, our flat screen TV gave me an up close view of Morgan Williams’ buzzer-beating shot that dethroned UConn. But to revel in the excitement of what turned out to be two watershed moments in women’s basketball history would have been amazing. Otherwise, here are my reflections from afar on this year’s Division 1 NCAA tournament.

I don’t subscribe to the “UConn was bad for women’s basketball” philosophy. But you have to admit that watching games in which the outcome is still in doubt in the fourth quarter is a lot of fun. Apparently, lots of others thought so too. According to an NCAA press release, the audience for the final game was 20 percent higher than last year’s and the number of people streaming the game doubled from a year ago.

The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association invited 61 graduating female players to a workshop during their convention last week titled, “So You Want to Be a Coach.”  Obviously, the WBCA is concerned that there aren’t more women coaching college women.  Dawn Staley’s leading USC to the women’s Division I championship is likely to have more of an impact than any workshop could.  Staley has been a pioneer and a game changer since her days as a point guard at the University of Virginia. The fact that she’ll be coaching the U.S. Olympic team in 2020 will also give her the opportunity to be a more public role model and spokesperson, some would say, in the mold of Pat Summitt.

I was initially quite critical, but now I’m thinking that Vic Schaefer’s decision to keep Mississippi State’s  “itty bitty” Morgan William on the bench in the final quarter of the championship game might have made sense. I don’t know the whole story, of course. But if she was completely spent from Friday night’s overtime win over Connecticut and all the subsequent media attention, the change was warranted. Maybe Schaefer deserves kudos for going with his gut — I still don’t think William would have hurt their chances, but I also don’t think USC was  going to be denied their championship.

South Carolina is on top of the women’s basketball world, but the Gamecocks still haven’t beaten UConn. Will they lack “street cred” in the minds of some potential recruits until they do? There are lots of good reasons for playing for Geno Auriemma. But I know I’d rather play for Dawn Staley. She seems to have a great basketball mind, the ability to get her players all on the same page, and the sense to surround herself with winners when it comes to her coaching staff. She also emphasizes the building of relationships in the Pat Summitt mold. I loved seeing her wearing her ball cap, dancing it out, sticking out her tongue, and just generally enjoying the moment after USC’s victory last Sunday.

 Next year’s tournament is in Columbus, Ohio, hosted by Ohio State. A limited number of tickets are already on sale, but you will soon be able to register to be notified when the bulk of them go on sale next fall. No regrets next time!

Not the same-old, same-old

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.

Coach Dawn Staley calls Allisha Gray “the silent assassin.”

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.”

Staley pleads her case in a game last December. She  will coach the U.S. Olympic team in 2020

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.

For South Carolina to win, A’ja Wilson, left, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore, right, can’t be doing too much sitting.

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.”