Dawn Staley Cements South Carolina as NCAA's Premier Women's Hoops Program

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IDecember 22, 2021

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley communicates with players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Stanford Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 65-61. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Sean Rayford/Associated Press

When Dawn Staley arrived to discuss defeating Stanford 65-61, her team's greatest comeback victory in program history, she sat down and put her gray Havanese dog Champ on the table right beside her. Staley and her team were at home, and Champ appearing beside her was par for the course.

A total of 13,079 people were reported in attendance at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, for one of the most anticipated matchups of the 2021-22 season. It was also a rematch of the 2021 women's Final Four between Staley's Gamecocks and Tara VanDerveer's defending national champion Stanford Cardinal. VanDerveer's squad came out on top last April, defeating the Gamecocks 66-65 to move onto the national championship game.

When Staley was asked about the attendance number and how the crowd was able to help will her team back from an 18-point deficit, she replied: "Who accounted for the 3,000 people that snuck in? Because it looked like a little more than that."

She remarked that the showing Tuesday night was electric and remembered seeing a social media post before the game that said the matchup was going to be "an experience that you've never heard before in a gym."

"There was no lie told," Staley said in response to that fan's post.

That energy, obsessive fandom and loaded roster from top to bottom is what Staley has built in her 14 years as the head coach. And her team's come-from-behind victory against the defending champs was representative of the juggernaut she has built.

The Gamecocks have the potential to enter the postseason undefeated, and they just proved exactly why. Staley's team continues to show that it's elite and the favorite to win the national championship.


Staley's Major Adjustment on Defense

Sean Rayford/Associated Press

In the first half, Stanford's offense was in sync. The Cardinal scored 21 points in each quarter and shot over 47 percent in both quarters as well. Lexie Hull scored 14 points in the first out of her 17 total, and the Cardinal hit six of their seven threes.

Staley noted that in the first half the Cardinal caught the ball where they wanted and moved it around at will. Stanford's Princeton-style offense spread the floor, got everyone involved and was free-flowing. When there was an open lane, point forwards and wings Lexie and Lacie Hull and Haley Jones made the right reads.

Going into the third quarter, the Gamecocks needed to adjust and try to expose Stanford's main weakness: its lack of a traditional point guard. Their biggest adjustment in the third was denying any pass going into the high post. Once the Gamecocks were all on the same page in denying that initial entry pass to begin each of Stanford's offensive sets, South Carolina was able to string together multiple stops, turnovers and plays in transition in a row.

Point guard Destanni Henderson, playing in her first game since November after sitting out because of a left leg injury, led the Gamecocks' defensive intensity in the second half. She had seven steals in addition to her 17 points and a game-high seven assists. With 24 seconds left and Stanford down by one, Staley made sure that Henderson was on the Cardinal's main ball-handler in point-forward Jones.

"We certainly wanted Henny in the position of playing under [Jones], making her play a little bit faster and bother her a little bit," Staley said after the game. "And I thought we just, you know, we wanted that matchup. Everybody else could have matched up however they needed to match up, but for that one, Henny was the one that's gonna bring it home and make a play."

With five seconds left after Aliyah Boston's 1-of-2 trip at the line gave the Gamecocks a 63-60 lead, Staley's sharp anticipation stymied Stanford. After the timeout, she instructed Zia Cooke to foul Cameron Brink once she got the ball before she could set a screen for stretch post Ashten Prechtel to get off a three. The foul sent the sophomore to the line, where she only made one free throw before Francesca Belibi committed a lane violation.

Staley put on a coaches clinic throughout.


How South Carolina Landed Its Best Team Potentially Ever

Sean Rayford/Associated Press

VanDerveer noted in her postgame presser that she felt like her team could have done a better job on the offensive glass, as the Cardinal were outrebounded 18-11.

"You know, I thought our defense was pretty good," she said. "You know, we gave up some baskets that we shouldn't, but, you know, Boston's very tough in there. And we got hurt on the O-boards. We didn't do a good enough job on the O-boards. We need to be more aggressive."

Stanford actually outrebounded South Carolina 40-38, but it wasn't enough, and the best offensive rebounding team in the country stayed true to its identity. So how did the Gamecocks become so effective on the offensive glass? How is this what they are known for?

First and foremost, they are deep. In addition to superstar center Boston, South Carolina has 6'7" Kamilla Cardoso, 6'2" Victaria Saxton (who had 10 rebounds against the Cardinal) and larger guards in 6'4" Laeticia Amihere and 6'1" Brea Beal.

How does Staley work her magic? How does she get some of the most talented recruits to bet on her and South Carolina? Dating back to the days of WNBA superstar A'ja Wilson's time with the Gamecocks, Staley has had a way of connecting to potential recruits. She's able to form a maternal bond with them that goes beyond the court.

"I remember telling my parents, 'Coach Staley has gone through everything that I want to go through,'" Wilson told ESPN's Katie Barnes earlier this year.

Women's basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli provided some insight as to how Staley also captured the hearts of fans in the community. "I think Coach Staley is a brilliant teacher and a role model," she said, according to Cleopatra Shabazz of the Carolina News & Reporter. "Somebody you'd want your daughter to play for. Not just what you're going to learn on the court but the lessons she's going to teach you off the court."

Wilson, meanwhile, is far from the only former South Carolina player currently in the W or drafted, which includes Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray, Mikiah "Kiki" Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris. That core group of players gave Staley a formula for success, which included a national championship in 2017 that Wilson and her peers brought to South Carolina.

Almost five years after the Gamecocks were the last team standing in early April, their new core, which includes Wilson's successor in Boston and a talented supporting cast of Cooke, Henderson and Amihere, appears ready to put Staley and the Gamecocks back underneath the confetti.

But a month before the season even began, South Carolina recognized who they had in Staley and the type of program she's created from the ground up. The board of trustees honored her with a new seven-year, $22.4 million contract, making her the highest-paid Black coach in women's basketball.

And Tuesday night, more history was sealed. The Gamecocks' comeback wouldn't have been possible without the support and guidance from their coach.

"It is pretty cool to be a part of that history," Saxton said after the game when asked about what this win means to the program. "I just feel like, you know, without the coach that we got, we wouldn't be able to go out there and handle business like we did."