MINNEAPOLIS—Dawn Staley was losing.
Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Famer as a player, had coached at Temple, in her hometown, Philadelphia, for eight years, but the team couldn’t get beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
So when Staley took over as coach of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team in 2008, she had one goal on her mind. “I wanted to win,” Staley said Saturday. “I wanted to win the national championship.”
Under Staley, the Gamecocks have made 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, earned four trips to the Final Four and, after Sunday night, won two national championships. This has been a slow burn for Staley, who rebuilt South Carolina’s program from the ground up. That Sunday’s win was against Connecticut, the most decorated women’s basketball program, suggests a changing of the guard in the sport.
Staley built a powerhouse team led by Aliyah Boston, who won awards as the top player and defender. 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.”
Her rosters have proved themselves over and over. Staley has led the Gamecocks to their only No. 1 rankings in program history and sent eight Gamecocks to the WNBA draft, including the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, A’ja Wilson, who helped bring home the Gamecocks’ first national title in 2017.
On Sunday night, Wilson was on hand rooting for his alma mater.
UConn, led by Coach Geno Auriemma, laid the groundwork for much of that success, Staley said. Auriemma has won 11 championships at UConn, where he has been in charge since 1985.
“Whether people believe that or not, he has helped our game grow tremendously,” Staley said. “I think a lot of what we’re able to do and get is off the backs of their success. I think the people up at UConn treat their women’s basketball team as a sport. They’re forced to because of all the winning and all the success, but you could take a page out of their book.”
Going into the championship game, neither coach had lost a national championship game. Then Staley defeated Auriemma.
“I told Dawn after the game, they were the best team in the country all year,” Auriemma said Sunday night.
While South Carolina is pushing people to think beyond UConn as the gold standard in women’s college basketball, Staley hesitated to call her program a dynasty. But she acknowledged the playing field was changing.
“What I think is important as a Black woman and coach is the way you do it, like the example that 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 things the right way and keep our game in a place where the integrity is intact, because that’s the way we’ll grow,” she added.
While South Carolina’s two titles may seem like baby steps compared to 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 is spread across the country evicted, in part, in six double-digit seeded teams making the round of 16.
South Carolina is a member of the Southeastern Conference, which is known primarily for football. Staley, through her success, has drawn much more attention to women’s basketball at her university. She has positioned herself as the highest-paid Black woman coaching a team and cultivated a loyal fan base that has led the country in attendance for women’s college basketball for seven straight seasons.
“When she first got here, it wasn’t all rainbows and stuff,” Beal, a junior guard, said ahead of Sunday’s game. “I think, just looking back on that and how she built a great community, a great place, I think just having our own legacy and building that for us was key.”
Candace Parker of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky said South Carolina is carving out its own path.
“I would say the next USC is the next USC, I think everyone is chasing who they want to be, their own identity,” Parker said after Sunday’s game. “I think they are who they are and they’re doing what they’re meant to be.”
If Boston has her way, Sunday night’s win is just the beginning.
“I think over the past couple years you’ve just been able to see this program and how it just continues to grow,” Boston said, adding that more players will want to go to South Carolina because of “the atmosphere that we have here .”