Already in the Hall of Fame as a player, Dawn Staley took the first step to cementing her legacy as a coach, leading the South Carolina Gamecocks to their first Final Four in school history, with an 80-74 win over Florida State Sunday in Greensboro, N.C. The top-seeded Gamecocks (34-2) received 21 points from SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell and 14 from Regional Most Outstanding Player Alaina Coates, and they will face Notre Dame (35-2) Sunday in Tampa. Staley, who won three Olympic gold medals and drove Virginia to the NCAA final as a player, turned a program that went 10-18 during her initial season of 2008-09 to a popular destination for some of women’s basketball’s highly-coveted recruits.
“It’s much different as a coach than a player,” Staley told the NCAA media Sunday. “As a coach you reflect on all the former players, you reflect on all the bad seasons, you reflect on all the good seasons, you reflect on what basketball really means to you, and for me, it’s all I had, it’s been my passion, my livelihood. It’s a great moment because it is shared by so many people across so many teams. I think back to my coaching at Temple University, this is a dream we sold them on. Now we have some credibility to what we’re saying and what we’re selling, our program, our university.”
While Mitchell leads the team with 14.5 points per game, 6-foot-5 freshman A’ja Wilson (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rebounds per game) and the 6-foot-4 sophomore Coates (11.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg) come off the bench in favor of senior frontcourt players Aleighsa Welch (9.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Elem Ibiam (6.3 ppg). Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier join Mitchell in the backcourt, with Bianca Cuevas and Tina Roy as reserves. To illustrate the depth, Roy, who averages 4.7 points, was 4-of-8 from downtown in Friday’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina.
“We have enough experience on this team and just to mix in some of our youth, I think that helps us just because we are so deep,” Mitchell told the NCAA Sunday. “Last year, we didn’t have enough to get over that Sweet 16 hump, and this year, I think we are so much deeper.”
The Gamecocks’ inexperience will be tested, as the Notre Dame team they face is appearing in its fifth-consecutive Final Four. Junior Jewell Loyd is scoring 20 points per game, while freshman Brianna Turner averages 13.7. The Irish and Gamecocks each have losses to Connecticut this season, and Notre Dame’s other loss was at Miami (USC’s was to Kentucky).
South Carolina’s win also means a return to the Final Four for assistant coach Nikki McCray, who led Tennessee to the championship game 20 years ago as a two-time SEC Player of the Year, before winning gold medals with Staley in Atlanta and Sydney.
Note, the quotes in the article were e-mailed to the writer from the NCAA Basketball Media Department.