South Carolina's Dawn Staley has been on arguably one of the greatest runs as a head coach in college basketball history.
The Gamecocks were poised as top contenders for the 2020 NCAA Tournament after another strong year. Staley captured her tenth SEC title after leading her squad through the regular season with a 32-1 record and 16-0 in the SEC. South Carolina plowed through the conference tournament, beating all three opponents by an average of more than 24 points. South Carolina's national championship hopes were cut short when all remaining winter and spring NCAA Championships were canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus.
Staley's success can be attributed to the close relationship she forms with her players. WNBA All-Star and former No. 1 Draft pick A'ja Wilson said, "When it comes to me and Coach Staley, it's really a love-hate relationship. She's like my second mom, someone that's always been there for me, always honest and real and true to who she is.
"We've shared many, many, many moments together, but I think the biggest thing is the moments without a basketball."
Wilson recalls moments where she could talk to Staley about anything, such as walking into her office just to see how she was doing. But the moment that tops it all for Wilson was winning the National Championship in 2017.
"She really changed the culture of women's basketball in South Carolina," Wilson said.
Staley was able to come to Columbia and work her way up and become the best coach in college basketball.
Staley's coaching prowess was on full display in 2014-15 when she led her first SEC Championship squad to the Final Four.
Former Gamecock and current Indiana Fever guard Tiffany Mitchell said one of her favorite moments with Staley was when they played North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
"I think we were losing, then the game was just tied back and forth throughout the game. One of my teammates hit a big shot, Olivia Gaines that literally just bounced in. So it's a tie game. At this point [Staley] looks at me and told me she wanted the ball in my hands."
The play that Staley drew up was a defining moment in Mitchell's career.
With the score tied at 65 in a Sweet 16 matchup vs. North Carolina, Staley wanted the ball in Mitchell's hands for a drive to the basket where Staley figured Mitchell would either score the go-ahead bucket or draw a foul to get to the free-throw line. Mitchell drove decisively through the North Carolina defense and scored what proved to be the winning basket on a layup over the outstretched arm of UNC's Hillary Fuller with just 4.2 seconds left.
The Gamecocks, the top seed in that 2015 NCAA Tournament, advanced to a regional final for what was then only the second time in school history with a 67-65 victory. They subsequently defeated Florida State in the Elite Eight before falling to Notre Dame in a Final Four semifinal - but Mitchell says the confidence Staley expressed in her at that moment against North Carolina empowered her and had an everlasting positive effect.
"The building was packed with our fans so everyone was going crazy," Mitchell said. "But after the game, we just hugged and shared a moment. Her telling me she's proud of me and from there the trust and the confidence she put in me always stuck with me."
The 2014-15 Final Four run was just the beginning, as Staley and the Gamecocks would go on to dominate the SEC and the rest of the country by winning five of the last six SEC Tournament Championships, making it to the NCAA Tournament every year and winning the 2017 National Championship.
Staley's place in history is already solidified and she will continue to add more awards and achievements to that as the years go on. She won't just be known as a great coach in women's basketball, but in all of sports.
In a postgame interview after a loss to Staley and the Gamecocks in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack was asked by a reporter about head coaching opportunities for women of color.
Legette-Jack responded, "The fight is for the next young lady that needs a person who looks like her to rise above."
When reporters asked Staley about those comments, she said, "I think any time you're in this profession as an African American woman, man, you have to be successful out the gate. If you're not successful you have to go back, and fortunately for me, I didn't go through the ranks of being a grad assistant and assistant coach up through there. I was given an opportunity because somebody saw something in me that I didn't see in myself."
Dawn Staley - Career Notes at South Carolina
- Record of 305-98 (.757) over 12 seasons as head coach
- Eight NCAA Tournament appearances: 2012 (Sweet 16); 2013; 2014 (Sweet 16); 2015 (Final Four); 2016 (Sweet 16); 2017 (Champion); 2018 (Elite Eight); 2019 (Sweet 16)
- Five SEC Regular-Season Championships (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019)
- Five SEC Tournament Championships (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020)
- Four 30-Win Seasons (2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2019-20)
- Four-time SEC Coach of the Year (2014, 2015, 2016, 2020)
- AP National Coach of the Year (2020)
- Naismith National Coach of the Year (2020)
- USBWA National Coach of the Year (2020)