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It’s Clearly South Carolina’s Time. Here’s How Dawn Staley Crafted It.


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, however the team couldn’t get beyond the primary weekend of the N.C.A.A. 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 desired to win,” Staley said Saturday. “I desired to win the national championship.”

Under Staley, the Gamecocks have made 10 consecutive N.C.A.A. tournaments, earned 4 trips to the Final 4 and, after Sunday night, won two national championships. This has been a slow burn for Staley, who rebuilt South Carolina’s program from the bottom up. That Sunday’s win was against Connecticut, probably the most decorated women’s basketball program, suggests a changing of the guard in the game.

Staley built a powerhouse team led by Aliyah Boston, who won awards as the highest player and defender. Starting guards Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Destanni Henderson, Staley said, have “logged a whole lot of minutes together,” and in consequence they play like “shorthand writing.”

“You don’t need to say much,” Staley said. “You may just point, they usually know the switch.”

Her rosters have proved themselves again and again. Staley has led the Gamecocks to their only No. 1 rankings in program history and sent eight Gamecocks to the W.N.B.A 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 readily available rooting for her 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 imagine that or not, he has helped our game grow tremendously,” Staley said. “I believe a whole lot of what we’re capable of do and get is off the backs of their success. I believe the people up at UConn treat their women’s basketball team as a sport. They’re forced to due to all of the winning and all of the success, but you might 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 sport, they were the very best team within the country all 12 months,” Auriemma said Sunday night.

While South Carolina is pushing people to think beyond UConn because 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 believe is vital as a Black woman and coach is the way in which you do it, like the instance that you simply set for other coaches to follow,” Staley said after Sunday’s game.

“I just need to be an excellent example of the right way to do things the fitting way and keep our game in a spot where the integrity is unbroken, because that’s the way in which we’ll grow,” she added.

While South Carolina’s two titles may seem to be baby steps in comparison with UConn’s 11 championships, the game is not any longer dominated by one team. This season has shown how women’s basketball is in a really different era, one with a wealth of talent spread across the country, which manifested in six double-digit-seeded teams making the round of 16.

South Carolina is a member of the Southeastern Conference, which is understood primarily for football. Staley, through her success, has drawn far more attention to women’s basketball at her university. She has positioned herself because the highest-paid Black woman coaching a team and cultivated a loyal fan base that has led the country in attendance for girls’s college basketball for seven straight seasons.

“When she first came, it wasn’t all rainbows and stuff,” Beal, a junior guard, said ahead of Sunday’s game. “I believe, just looking back on that and the way she built an excellent community, an excellent place, I believe just having our own legacy and constructing that for us was key.”

Candace Parker of the W.N.B.A.’s Chicago Sky said South Carolina is carving out its own path.

“I’d say the subsequent U.S.C. is the subsequent U.S.C., I believe everyone seems to be chasing who they need to be, their very own identity,” Parker said after Sunday’s game. “I believe they’re who they’re they usually’re doing what they’re meant to be.”

If Boston has her way, Sunday night’s win is just the start.

“I believe over the past couple years you’ve just been capable of see this program and the way it just continues to grow,” Boston said, adding that more players will need to go to South Carolina due to “the atmosphere that now we have here.”

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