MINNEAPOLIS – Don Staley was growing up.
Staley, a three-time Olympic Gold Medalist and Hall of Famer as a player, coached at Temple, his hometown, in Philadelphia, for eight years, but the team couldn’t miss the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
So when Steele took over as coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team in 2008, he had one goal in mind: “I want to win,” Staley said Saturday. “I want to win a national championship.”
Under Steele, the Gamecocks have won 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, made four trips to the Final Four and, after Sunday night, won two national championships. This has been a slow rush for Steele, who has rebuilt the South Carolina program from the ground up. This Sunday’s victory was against Connecticut, the most decorated women’s basketball program to suggest a change of guard in the playoffs.
Staley created a powerhouse team led by Allen Boston, who received awards as top players and defenders. Starting guards Zia Cook, Bria Bell and Dustney Henderson, Staley, have “accumulated a lot of minutes,” and as a result they play like “short hand writing.”
“You don’t have to say much,” Staley said. “You can just point, and they know the switch.”
His list has proven itself over and over again. The Steelers have brought the Gamecocks to their only No. 1 ranking in program history and have sent eight Gamecocks in the WNBA Draft, including the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, to A’ja Wilson, who earned the Gamecocks’ first national title. Helped to do that. 2017.
On Sunday night, Wilson was on hand root for his alma mater.
UConn, led by coach Geno Orima, laid the foundation for much of this success, Staley said. Auriemma has won 11 championships at UConn, where he has been in charge since 1985.
“Whether people believe it or not, it has helped us grow our game a lot,” Staley said. “I think a lot of what we’re capable of doing and getting is the key to their success. I think people at UConn consider their women’s basketball team a game. They are bound to win and for all the achievements, but you can take a page out of their book.
Going into the championship game, neither coach lost the national championship game. Then Stella defeated Orima.
“I told Don after the game, they were the best team in the country all year,” Orima said Sunday night.
While South Carolina is pushing people to think of UConn as the gold standard in women’s college basketball, Staley hesitated to call his program a family. But he acknowledged that the playing field was changing.
“What I think is important for a black woman and as a coach is the way you do things, like the example 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 properly and keep our game in a place where integrity is maintained, because that’s the way we will go,” he added.
While the two titles in South Carolina may seem like baby steps, compared to the Yukon’s 11 championships, the game 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 spread across the country, partially making the Round of 16 in ten-digit seeded teams.
South Carolina is a member of the Southeastern Conference, which is primarily known for football. Steele, through his success, has drawn a lot of attention to women’s basketball at his university. He has positioned himself as the highest paid female coach on a team and has built a loyal fan base that has led the nation to seven straight seasons in women’s college basketball attendance.
“When she first came here, it wasn’t all rainbow and stuff,” Bell, a junior guard, said before Sunday’s game. “I think, just looking back on that and how he created a great community, a great place, I think it was important for us to just build our own heritage and do that.”
WNBA’s Chicago Sky’s Candice Parker said South Carolina is making its way.
“I would say the next USC is the next USC, I think everyone is looking for who they want to be, their own identity,” Parker said after Sunday’s game. “I think they are what they are and they are doing what they mean.”
If Boston is on the way, Sunday night’s victory is just the beginning.
“I think you’ve just been watching this program over the past few years and how it’s going to grow,” said Boston, adding that more players want to move to South Carolina because “we have the atmosphere here. “