Twenty-five years later, Dawn Staley finally wins her NCAA championship

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net as she and the team celebrate their win over Mississippi State in the women’s NCAA tournament title game on April 2, 2017. (LM Otero / AP)

For twenty-five years it gnawed. It was the one thing left un-won, the hole that couldn’t be filled for Dawn Staley, the sole piece of losing in her otherwise heavily victorious and be-medaled life, and she just couldn’t tolerate that. Bottom line: don’t ever try to take a trophy from Staley. She’ll chase you through the eons to get it back.

South Carolina’s national championship victory over Mississippi State, 67-55, was in one sense an anticlimax, but it also was a magnificent score-settling for Staley, a newly formidable figure in the coaching ranks of women’s basketball now that she got that trophy in her hands. A quarter century ago Staley’s college career as a player at Virginia ended with a one-point loss to Stanford in the 1992 Final Four, a source of grief that she still found "stinging" as an adult head coach in 2017. That tells you all you have to know about her. Two-and-a-half decades later she was still determined to make up for it.

"It took that long," she said.

With a voice like a raven and a talent for persuading her players — and a steel learned playing against guys on the street courts of Philadelphia — Staley is a strikingly compelling figure. And now that she has built South Carolina into a championship program, it’s hard to see how she won’t win more — and be a permanent force for the Connecticuts and Baylors and Notre Dames to reckon with. "She put her voice in us," said all-American A’Ja Wilson, who wrested the game away with 23 points and 10 rebounds.

What’s most interesting about Staley is that she is that she is such a perpetual seeker of more wins, on top of all the ones she already has. She is the first person in women’s basketball history to appear in the NCAA championship game as both a most valuable player and a head coach, and also just the second African American woman to win a title, joining Carolyn Peck of Purdue in 1999. But as she put it, for her "the game of basketball has been faceless and genderless and colorless." She is simply one of the most decorated figures in the history of the game on any level, men or women: three Final Fours as a point guard at Virginia, five Olympic gold medals as a star for USA Basketball, an appearance in the WNBA Finals as a player in 2001 with the Charlotte Sting. And recently she was named head coach of the Olympic team in 2020. Perhaps only a Bill Russell has as illustrious and multi-leveled of a résumé. None of it was enough for her.

Throughout Staley’s playing career, coaches had marked her as someone capable of making the transition from floor leader to the bench leader. For 16 years as a point guard she was the undisputed ruling spirit of the Olympic team, with even three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie deferring to her. Nell Fortner, who coached Team USA to a gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Games between stints at Purdue and Auburn, said, "She was absolutely the best leader I ever worked with, hands down." Any time Staley came over and recommended a floor adjustment, Fortner would say, "Okay, do it."

"Her aura was just that good," Fortner said. "She led by example, words, actions, and character. She was the whole package."

Staley’s opinion meant so much that Fortner found herself reacting like a player when Staley patted her on the back and told her "good job," after coaching the Olympic team to a win early in the Sydney Games. "We’d been training for three years, and for her to tell me good job meant so much," Fortner said. "And the reason it meant so much to me is because I had so much respect for her."

Staley began her coaching career at Temple in her home town of Philly in 2000, when she was still an active player, and immediately coached the Owls to their first winning record in 10 years. But in 2008 she moved to South Carolina when she decided she had taken Temple "as far as we could take it." She wanted a "national championship platform," and inexorably built toward it.

She seemed totally prepared for this moment. Just before tip-off, she stood on the sideline coolly polishing her severe black-rimmed spectacles with her shirttail. By halftime her Gamecocks led by 10, 36-26, with a display of her signature brand of dribble-attacking, board-crashing, close-defending play.

It was a virtuoso coaching performance, all the more so because she had lost a key player earlier this season in starting center Alaina Coates and had to revamp her team around the absence. And she was up against a dangerous opponent in the Bulldogs, who in the semifinals knocked out Connecticut and ended its 111-game winning streak with an epic buzzer-beater from Morgan William in overtime. But it was the second overtime game the Bulldogs played in as many rounds, and the Gamecocks represented their third straight top-seeded opponent. The question was how much the Bulldogs would have left, and the answer was, not quite enough to cope with the combination of speed, size and all-out aggression Staley put on the floor. "We were half a step late all day," Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said.

When the sense of completion finally came, it came pouring, partly in tears from players and coaches on the bench, and partly in such an overflow of confetti the South Carolina mascot could do snow angels in it.

"It means I can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career," Staley said, wearing the rope strands of the net like a necklace. ". . . I want people to know just because something takes a long time, if something is a goal of yours to accomplish, you don’t give it up. I never gave up on winning a championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like."

To some, Staley’s championship has long seemed inevitable; it was just a matter of time before she ratified herself as a great coach. A few years ago, when Staley was just starting out, her friend Carolyn Peck gave her a piece of the net that she had cut down in 1999. "Keep it," Peck told her. "When you win yours, return it." Staley kept it in her wallet all these years.

"Now I’m going to have to pass a piece of my net to someone else," she said.

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