Dawn Staley's South Carolina is women's hoops new powerhouse

Dawn Staley’s South Carolina is women’s hoops new powerhouse

MINNEAPOLIS — Dawn Staley spoke directly into the camera, confetti on the ground, her Louis Vuitton letterman jacket long ditched for better gear and a crowd growing around her.

“Let ’em know who the champs are,” Staley half-yelled, fans in the stands still hanging on her every word in the background. She adjusted her brand-new gray hat. “The Gamecocks.”

South Carolina slayed UConn, 64-49, to win its second women’s basketball national championship in program history at Target Center on Sunday night. A rocking Gamecock-heavy crowd erupted in the final 30 seconds as she keeled over in the green letterman jacket, the “net worth” goal achieved. Her players could finally let loose two hours after stomping out to a start to which the Huskies could never come close enough.

Her first Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Las Vegas Aces star and 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, came onto the court and danced with LeLe Grissett, the same gray hat backward over a bucket hat. She made the rounds, reminding Team USA teammate and Louisville grad Angel McCoughtry about their bet. Expect to see the Minnesota Lynx forward start the WNBA season in garnet gear. No, McCoughtry is not happy in the least about it.

Staley’s newest Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Aliyah Boston, shouted out Chicago Sky champion Candace Parker in the crowd when accepting her last trophy of many this week. Down on the court later, Parker took on photography duties for the brightest women’s basketball forward of the night.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley reacts during the Gamecocks’ national championship win on April 3, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

This is what Staley has built. And take it from Wilson, two of something is not a fluke. The iconic coach has cemented herself and her program into a powerhouse, a dawning of a new era and year-in, year-out team to beat. That they did it against the 11-time champion Connecticut Huskies, delivering the dynasty led by Geno Auriemma its first loss in a title game, is an allegory of the new era.

That isn’t lost on Boston. Yes, it does mean more to win a national title this way.

“I feel like a lot of people use that as a standard when you look at a program like South Carolina and how much it’s developed and how great it is,” Boston said. “And I feel like coming into this game, the conversation was about how Coach Auriemma was 11-0 in title games. But Coach Staley was 1-0, and now she’s 2-0. And I think it just shows the type of program that she’s built and how great it is being a dynasty.”

Staley doesn’t view it as a dynasty to win two in five years or head to back-to-back Final Fours. At least not in her day and age.

“Aliyah and social media, yeah, they think they’re doing something really good,” Staley said. “But just look at the tradition of UConn and what they were able to do. They’re the standard. If it takes winning 11 national championships to be a dynasty, I’m probably going to fall short of that because I’m not going to be in the game long enough for us to win 11.”

She talked about the importance of being a Black woman and head coach and doing it the right way. That was front and center Sunday. She ran around the media rope holding the trophy as Wilson filmed her taking it to the pep band to make sure they were included. On the stage before accepting the trophy, with ESPN cameras sending out her message, she shouted out bench players who don’t receive much playing time and credited everything they’ve done to get them to the top.

“It shows you how much she genuinely cares about everyone on this team and how much everybody matters,” Olivia Thompson, a hometown player like Wilson and former walk-on, said.

Players cited that aspect of their two-time national champion coach repeatedly inside their confetti-filled rectangle amid family hugs, photo ops and turns cutting down the net. Zia Cooke called it a realness.

“I’m big on that, just being around people that are genuine, they’re real, the ‘I just want the best for you,’ ” Cooke said. “She’s trusted me from Day 1 since I was a freshman. Just put her trust in me and being there for me on and off the court.”

Wilson cited loyalty, truthfulness and honesty as the reason she has stayed so close with Staley. They engage in fun Twitter banter and podcast shots that bring authenticity to a space long lacking of it.

“When people say you shake the hands of a CEO the same you shake the hands of a custodian? That’s Coach Staley,” Wilson said.

The scene in Minneapolis is far from being Staley’s coming-out party as a great coach in winning and leadership. That was already established. The program has hit its biggest firsts under her, including first SEC conference titles and Player of the Year. The former player worked with local media to increase exposure and spent many media opportunities through the 2022 tournament thanking them for their work.

Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, is constantly full when Wilson remembers it as a place where you could reach out and touch players on the court it was so empty. When a “FAM,” as Gamecock fans are called, contacted her in Minneapolis about better chants, she made sure he was upgraded from the rafters to lower bowl to lead it. He did his job well in a crowd that cheered for Paige Bueckers, the hometown star, but bellowed for South Carolina.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks celebrate during the national championship trophy presentation after defeating the UConn Huskies 64-49 in the 2022 NCAA women's tournament on April 3, 2022 at Target Center in Minneapolis.  (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks celebrate during the national championship trophy presentation after defeating the UConn Huskies 64-49 in the 2022 NCAA women’s tournament on April 3, 2022 at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

She is loud on issues that resonate with her and unafraid to make statements in defense of her players. This season, she carried on the tradition of passing along a piece of her 2017 national championship net to Black head coaches at the Division I level this year to be a “dream merchant” for them. It’s a phrase she uses often. With the 2022 net hanging around her neck on the news conference dais in Minneapolis, she pulled a piece of that ’17 net out of her pocket where it had been throughout the night.

Staley has pulled in top recruiting classes featuring star players, but also relies on team chemistry and a cohesive unit. Boston is dominant, but she rarely brings them a win on her own. Defense spurred this championship.

And in the name, image, and likeness era, Staley is a personality who can connect with players. In an open practice session Saturday, she danced her way through, sometimes with players, just as she had all season. She threw up basketballs like a quarterback attempting to hit the shot, a season-long social tradition. Why stop now? She relates to players on her team and long after they’re gone.

“She’s corny,” Wilson said about how Staley can connect with teenagers. “That’s the best thing about it. She is who she is. She wants to be trendy. And that just makes you want to be a part of her, to guide her, to make her be trendy, to like be cool.”

Wilson said she contributes to that guidance by hyping her up, but had to cut off her own thought to run over with her phone high to hype up her former coach cutting down a second net. It’s one that will continue on the tradition of empowerment Staley embodies. The largest part of her legacy. As for Wilson’s trendy comments, some current players don’t agree.

“She’s trendy on her own,” a broad-smiling Thompson said. “She does that all by herself. She doesn’t need anyone else.”

So Wilson will probably hear those remarks in a good-natured way. Because Staley’s trend now is winning, doing it the right way, bringing everyone along with her and letting everyone know.

The Gamecocks are the fields.

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