Dawn Staley Has Turned S. Carolina into NCAA Champs and a 1-of-1 Hoops Culture

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IApril 5, 2022

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates after a college basketball game in the final round of the Women's Final Four NCAA tournament against UConn Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Minneapolis. South Carolina won 64-49 to win the championship. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Dawn Staley is walking with a pep in her step and a rhythm in her body. She's hoisting the ultimate prize over her head as she grooves from center court all the way past the hoop and off the floor. She stops when she sees a group of students, the South Carolina pep band, some of whom still have their instruments around their necks.

Staley marches over to a student without an instrument on him and places the trophy in his arms. His eyebrows went up and his mouth was agape. Once he realized what had just happened, he let out a few loud and impassioned "yeahhhhhhhhs!" He was holding the NCAA women's basketball national championship trophy.

Staley has "a fascination" with the band. She believed it was important that they got their moment too.

"I want young people to experience, like, I want them to remember great experiences," she said when asked about this moment postgame. "I know some of our fans who have been band members. They follow us. They get in their car, they're on flights and they're here because of how we made them feel in moments of great pride. They're students at the University of South Carolina, and they've been here for a long time in this city, doing the thing that they love, and why not? Why not have them have pictures with the national championship trophy, because they, in fact, helped us? They created an atmosphere that—we hear them. We hear them. They're a part of the whole experience of being in the gym."

They were a part of an experience that landed South Carolina its second national championship in five years and the second for Staley. The Gamecocks defeated 11-time national champion UConn, 64-49, by playing their game, out-rebounding (49-24) and tiring out their opponent with attention to detail on the defensive end.

While the 2021-22 women's college basketball season was largely about South Carolina's effectiveness and consistency atop the AP poll—along with junior Aliyah Boston's development that has all signs pointing toward a future as the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick in 2023—the championship game was really about the less central but equally vital parts of the Gamecocks' story this season.

Sure, every time Boston was off the floor on Sunday night, the Huskies played better. They had more space to run their offensive sets, and Boston, the central nervous system of South Carolina's defense, wasn't there to lead the Gamecocks in their pristine defensive anticipation.

But this game was about the village that was both on and off the court behind South Carolina's biggest stars, head coach Staley and superstar and generational talent Boston.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

On the court it was Destanni Henderson, the senior point guard who had struggled at different points this season scoring consistently, hitting shots from beyond the arc and taking care of the basketball. On Sunday night, she took some of the load off Boston and put up a career-high 26 points, including 3-of-6 from three-point range, and four assists. UConn's defensive game plan was to force South Carolina to make outside shots, something that hasn't always been its strength. But on Sunday night, Henderson made enough.

It wasn't just Henderson's offense that made a difference, but rather it was how at 5'7" she successfully defended Paige Bueckers. While Bueckers wasn't 100 percent due to coming off knee surgery in December, she stands four inches taller than Henderson and had a magical performance less than a week ago against NC State.

Staley started with Henderson on Bueckers, but in the back of her mind, there was a plan B. Usually, 6'1" Brea Beal is put on the opponents' best offensive threat, and if Henderson struggled, Staley was ready to make that adjustment. But there was no need on the game's biggest stage.

"We didn't really have to do that because Henny was super focused on just making it really hard for her," Staley said postgame. "Paige made some incredible shots, but we wanted 40 minutes of making her work, making her work, exhausting her."

Bueckers missed some shots in the final minutes of regulation that are expected to go in, as she clearly was worn down. Staley believed Henderson was the catalyst. This shouldn't have been that large of a surprise, as this was the same type of defensive performance Henderson had against Haley Jones when South Carolina beat Stanford 65-61 in December.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Now off the court, or maybe rather above it or on the sideline, Sunday's national championship game was a display of who and what South Carolina basketball is about besides offensive rebounding and playing staunch defense. The community around Gamecocks women's basketball isn't the largest in number, but it might be the loudest.

Within Target Center there were visibly more fans wearing UConn Husky blue and white, but when the arena announcer prompted the two fanbases to get loud, it was clear which had more energy, more umph in its hooting and hollering.

"Their energy is always, always with us," Henderson said. "I feel like they're the best fans ever, and the way they support us. Whether they're here, whether they're outnumbered, you're always going to hear them no matter what."

Henderson is correct, and this extends to beyond the arena and onto the internet. The Gamecocks' WBB fanbase (also known as FAM) is one of the most unapologetic on Women's Basketball Twitter. This is something that Staley also recognizes.

The day before the championship game, she was asked about what she made of the crowd's presence in the semifinal against the Louisville Cardinals. She noted that one of the diehards DM'd her on Twitter and noted that he felt like the cheering needed to be louder. He wanted to have a "FAM meeting."

She asked him where he was sitting and he sent a picture. He was way up in the upper deck. Staley told him that she'd get a ticket for him down in the lower section closer to the floor so he could lead the chants and make sure the fanbase was on the same page. And on Sunday night, that's exactly where he was, in the front row of the fan section leading the FAM chant at one point with former Gamecock and WNBA superstar A'ja Wilson.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

After the game, once some of the postgame television interviews were completed and the nets were cut down, Boston was called over to the fan section. At first they didn't want to take a picture or ask for an autograph but rather wanted to talk to Boston as a person and gas her up about what she had just accomplished.

Following a selfie or two, South Carolina's superstar walked down the entire length of the lower fan section signing box scores left on the media tables, shirts and taking selfies. She was even gifted two homemade T-shirts from a group of fans. She read the text on each tee and then clutched them in her left hand as she continued signing autographs and taking pictures. As a college athlete, she wasn't being paid to do this. She wasn't paid to stop her celebration to talk and interact with fans. This was her choice.

This is what she felt like she owed this group in return for helping her and her team achieve a prophecy: winning a national championship.

"It was an order for us to be champions today," Staley said after winning her second national championship. "We weren't going to be denied. We played every possession like it was our last."

Staley's proclamation affirmed that this year, it was meant to be.

The narrative all season for the Gamecocks was that they were denied a shot at the national championship in 2020, due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the following year on the missed putback from Boston against Stanford in the semifinal game in San Antonio.

But what if the championship victory happened not on Sunday but a year or even two ago? In 2020, playing in a tournament very likely would have caused more societal hurt than joy due to the fact that the coronavirus wasn't under control. And then in 2021, while the tournament was played, the San Antonio bubble wasn't an environment that was conducive to cultivating the South Carolina women's basketball community. The smaller but awfully mighty crew of fans who are undeniably passionate about Staley and her players wouldn't have had the autonomy to make the in-arena experience what the Gamecocks needed it to be.

When B/R asked Wilson after the game about that moment when the band got to hold the trophy, she explained how it's what makes Staley's culture and program one of a kind in the country. "I don't see any other coach that does that," she said. "She makes sure that everyone is involved and everyone has a seat with the trophy because it's true. I'm waiting on my replica because all the alumni got a replica when we won it because I want to put my replica up in my house."

In San Antonio, Boston wouldn't have been able to jump up and down with their cheerleaders at center court and Staley wouldn't have been able to allow South Carolina's pep band to hold the heavy mahogany, yellow and gold national championship trophy. And Wilson most likely couldn't have danced with fans in the stands, clowned around on TikTok with Staley after she cut down the net and been able to embrace the WNBA's next superstar do-it-all post player in Boston on the court after the final buzzer.

That's why everything about 2022 was South Carolina's year. And while UConn and Stanford look to challenge the Gamecocks' chance of repeating in 2023, Boston, Staley and the culture both created internally and within the entire South Carolina community is why they aren't going anywhere as they attempt to defend their title next March.