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Dawn Staley created South Carolina’s perfect championship season from last year’s loss



Dawn Staley created South Carolina's perfect championship season from last year's loss

CLEVELAND – As Dawn Staley stood in front of her team at a meet the night before the national championship game, she took a sip of water and started coughing.

“Are you going to cry, coach?” a player shouted from the back of the room.

“No,” she said and paused. “But maybe on Sunday if we win.”

The players laughed, but her assistants felt sincerity in those words. They’ve seen the burden Staley has carried this year as she has adapted to a team that is younger and looser. A team that sometimes didn’t respond to text messages or showed up late to meetings. A team that is so different from the group that graduated a season ago.

Staley has jokingly called this season’s roster a daycare center, and no one in the Gamecocks locker room is really dismissing that point. They wear it like a badge of honor with their own unique sense of humor. And yet they won and won and won on the floor while chasing just the 10th undefeated season in women’s basketball history.

The coaches were huddled on the sideline with a minute to go, with the 87-75 win over Iowa assured, the clock still performing just fine at this point and the national championship trophy all but adding to their growing cause. Staley’s tears began to fall. They continued to fall as she hugged her coaches and players, and as the clock finally expired. They continued during her post-match interview on the court and as she knelt down to catch her breath. She didn’t try to stop them. She wanted to process the emotions in real time.

“It was emotional for me because of the way it ended last year,” Staley said. “It’s tough, it’s tough. You carry the burden of all your players, all the coaches and staff members who put so much into our team. And it’s a heavy burden to be undefeated, to get the job done. And you get emotional because you just want that for them, and you’re happy that you can do that – because only one team wins the national championship.

Last year the Gamecocks were not An team. They were arguably the best team and the most talented team. South Carolina led the preseason rankings through the tournament and was the overwhelming favorite to get the job done. But the Gamecocks didn’t. They surprisingly fell short in Iowa. That senior class, which went 129-9 in four seasons and lost a total of only three games in their junior and senior seasons (by a total of 7 points), did everything right, and yet they didn’t end their careers with a win. They ended it like 350 other schools – at a loss.

“Last year shocked me,” Staley said. “It shocked me.”

According to Staley, that wasn’t quite right.

How can a team that does everything right not also win the league title? How could she not get that group – players who never gave Staley a reason to complain or wince – across the finish line? How could the best team Staley ever had not win that championship?

“I think that’s what drove her,” assistant coach Lisa Boyer said. “We still talk about how we didn’t get over the hill with that group. They were so talented and such a strong unit. … It was hard to understand.”

When this season started, Staley was processing the end of last season. A team with five new starters. A transfer from Oregon. No one averaged more than 20 minutes per game, and no player had more than three career starts. In many ways, it was the opposite of what she was working with last season.

Staley has always talked about the look, sound and feel of a team. And this one? It was loud and stupid. The players, Staley says, talked about nothing in particular. It wasn’t just different from last year’s group. They were unlike any other team she had ever had. Not just in some of the mechanics of how they played on the floor, but especially off the court.

During staff meetings, they used the words “pivot” and “meet them where they are” more often than ever before. Staley said that with such a young team, the coaches had to be both coaches and captains in a sense. It was more work, extra energy. They were building the plane as it taxied down the runway.

“If we had stayed the way we were with the rookies,” assistant coach Jolette Law said, “it just wouldn’t have worked.”

“It’s a push and pull, but the standard remains the same,” Boyer added. “You have to meet them halfway.”

That push and pull meant that players realized that players would take 3s in transition. (“When have you ever seen a Dawn Staley group take a 3 in transition?” said Khadijah Sessions, a former player and assistant coach. “Never.”) It meant that the no-phones rule the night before the competitions were abolished. It meant players had to get four days off after the SEC title game. “She said, ‘Guys, this is what they need. They need space. They need to recharge their batteries,” Law said. “That just means we can understand the composition and feel of what we have.”


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Junior Bree Hall said she didn’t really appreciate how much Staley had adjusted to them until the Gamecocks went to North Carolina and Duke a month into the season. During a team dinner at The Cheesecake Factory, Hall asked the team’s basketball director, Ariana Moore, if she and the other players could order cheesecake for dessert.

“The last two years, when someone said, ‘You can ask Coach,’ it meant, ‘Don’t even ask,'” Hall said. “Don’t even bother.”

But Hall does. Staley admitted. The players got their cheesecake.

Amid a shower of confetti and tears, these are the proof points of perfection: phones, days off, space, charged batteries, cheesecake. It’s the best evidence that, 2 1/2 decades into her coaching career, Staley is far from done. The tears are a testament to the burden she carried during a year that tested her every day.

“This is probably the first time in my career that a team has more endurance in certain areas. Like way more endurance than I could discipline them for,” Staley said. “So I’ve learned not to fight certain battles. No fights about core values, not the core principle of who we are and what I stand for, but just them playing their identity loose. They play for free.”

A year ago – after four seasons of one team doing everything right – the journey didn’t end with a celebration. A year ago, it didn’t end with a trophy hoisted and a net over Staley’s shoulders. But on Sunday she climbed the ladder after a very different journey than any before, a much more difficult journey in many ways. It was one that involved more pivoting and adjusting, a test every day and reckoning with the end of last season that shook her to her core. The sights, sounds and feels of this year were completely different, but so was the ending. In many ways, Staley’s own sight, sound and feel are different because from this year.

The Gamecocks may not have done everything right, may not have even come close, but they were something else that is rarer: they were perfect.

(Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)