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From “Daycare” to Dream Run: Why Dawn Staley's third South Carolina title might be her most impressive yet

CLEVELAND – This was all supposed to happen last year. The confetti bombs, the trophy hoists, the emotional finale to an unscathed season.

A year ago, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley took an early exit from the Final Four, sent Aliyah Boston's senior class to the WNBA and figured out how to coach a young team that wasn't making her life that easy would do.

It was a difficult season of adjustment, and 12 hours before the national championship game, she said it didn't feel like her team was going into the game undefeated again. She had a lax preparation at the start of the season and experienced some poor basketball in the last few months. Because of the youth in the team, she affectionately calls this group “daycare.”

“They were so different than all of our teams that I just didn't see it – it was a tough place to start,” Staley said the morning after securing a spot in the Final Four with the Albany 1 Regional. “Where do you start with a team that’s young but probably feeling a little bit comfortable because we’ve had success and feeling a little bit comfortable because they’re finally getting a chance to play?”

Staley started by trusting the process and ended up surrounded by her third championship team. With Boston, now an analyst for ESPN, standing next to her, Staley collapsed uncharacteristically shortly after the buzzer sounded in an 87-75 win over Iowa at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. She bent to the floor, stood up and tried to speak.

“It was emotional for me because it ended last year,” Staley told reporters afterward.

Staley said she was also emotional at the start of the game because she didn't want what happened last year to happen again. It was Iowa that beat South Carolina in the semifinals in Dallas.

“I wasn’t going to let what I thought happened last year happen to us this year,” Staley said. “So I had a little bit of post-traumatic stress disorder and I was dealing with it in real time.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrates after her team defeated Iowa and won the national championship.  (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrates after her team defeated Iowa and won the national championship. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

It could be the best coaching job of her career. She won her first title in 2017 with A'ja Wilson and Allisha Gray as juniors. Both remain in the WNBA, with Wilson a two-time MVP and two-time champion. The second was in 2022 during Boston's junior year and Naismith winning season. Five of these players are or were in the professionals. Staley is 3 of 3 in national title games as a coach.

But this squad? They are all incredibly talented, without there being a superstar among them. Center Kamilla Cardoso is a potential lottery pick in next week's WNBA Draft, but she doesn't take over games like Wilson or Boston. Staley herself said before the week in Cleveland that she was shocked to be here.

She spent much of her free time fighting for the culture and chemistry that has emerged in her program over the past seven to 10 years. She didn't have confidence in the process at the beginning and the player didn't understand how to prepare each month for the next. But as she embraced it and accepted that this group could be different than the previous ones, the victories started coming and they kept getting better.

“You can’t start where we lost in the Final Four,” Staley said after the regional win in Albany. “You have to start this year with a new group, come clean, allow them to figure out what their identity is going to be, both on and off the field, and ride the wave a little bit, but also never. “Sacrifice ours Core value.

South Carolina's goal is to win championships and develop the best talent. To win the final game of their undefeated season, two freshmen came off the bench and put in great performances. Tessa Johnson averaged 6.6 points in 17.9 minutes per game during the regular season. Against Iowa, she scored a team-high 19 while hitting three of six shots from 3-point range in 25 minutes.

“She’s always ready for the moment,” teammate Raven Johnson said. “When her number is called, she is always ready. Every shot she fires goes in. Just what Tessa does.”

MiLaysia Fulwiley showed her skills again and scored nine points with four rebounds and four assists. Johnson played strong defense against Clark, holding her to 30 when the superstar lost 41 to her last year. Te-Hina Paopao shot 3 of 4 from distance and missed her final attempt to lift South Carolina in the area where they lost the game last year. She had 14 points, Cardoso had 15 and Chloe Kitts had 11. The Gamecocks collectively outscored the undersized Hawkeyes 51-29.

It's the depth that has crushed opponents all season, and the bench scored 37 of its 87 points while dishing out around 17 fouls. That's a credit to Staley's coaching, that she can bring so much talent into the program that half of it sits and isn't bothered enough by it to leave or cause problems.

“Having a roster that’s nine to 10 players deep is — it’s a privilege, it really is,” Staley said. “But it has to be developed slowly and properly. There’s a lot of trust to be built because there are some games that some of them don’t play often, especially the guys coming off the bench.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net after winning the championship on Sunday.  (AP Photo/Morry Gash)South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net after winning the championship on Sunday.  (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net after winning the championship on Sunday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

A key to this team's success was that many of them waited in the wings for their shot or learned from necessity. Raven Johnson was rejected in last year's matchup because she wasn't a strong 3-point shooter. She said after the win that she wanted to see Iowa in the title game for that reason.

“It was an apology to my teammates, my coaches and myself,” Johnson said. “And I just feel like it was, like I said, a revenge tour. And there’s no better way than to compete against them in the championship and beat them.”

Part of Staley's coaching this year has been learning to meet her players where they were and accepting that it would be a different approach than in the past.

“For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play against Iowa and Caitlin, to just let go,” Staley said. “As a player, you want to let go of certain things that have held you captive. And I think losing in the Final Four last year held them captive, where normally you just quietly get things done and go about your business.”

The only outgoing senior on this team is Cardoso, who played two years for Boston. Paopao, the key transfer Staley brought in last summer to ensure there would be no repeat tournament defeat, said she intends to come back for her extra year of COVID-19 eligibility.

The freshmen will be more experienced, which is scary considering how good they already are this season. There's also a No. 2 recruiting class coming to Columbia in a few months.

“This team is going to be good,” Raven Johnson said. “Coach Staley, we have the best coach in the country, in the nation, in the world? There's no telling what it will add to the pieces we already have. All I’m saying is be careful.”

It'll be hard to top this one, but one thing Staley hasn't done yet? Win it back to back.

Anna Harden

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