A'JA WILSON'S jaw dropped. It was Feb. 2, 2014, and the 6'5" high school senior, the nation's No. 1 recruit, had just walked onto the court to the roaring approval of 7,828 South Carolina fans, most in neon-green shirts reading THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME, a nod to the Gamecocks' 28-game winning streak at Colonial Life Arena. On her official visit to Columbia, Wilson posed for photos and signed autographs, watched as a Fathead of her made the rounds in the student section, and talked Super Bowl strategy with football coach Steve Spurrier. For Wilson, who grew up just 14 miles southeast in Hopkins, her choice of college suddenly became clearer.
When Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the best guards ever, took over SEC cellar-dweller South Carolina in May 2008, she told her assistants that they had to make it impossible for in-state recruits to say no. A year after Wilson said yes, she was averaging 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds for the top-ranked Gamecocks (20--0 through last Saturday), who head to Storrs to take on No. 2 UConn (19--1) on Monday night.
Staley, 44, likes to say she got tricked into coaching. While with the WNBA's Charlotte Sting in 2000, she politely declined Temple athletic director Dave O'Brien three times when he asked if she'd be interested in the Owls' job. But at the '00 Final Four in Staley's hometown of Philadelphia, O'Brien went after her pride: Was she good enough to turn around the program, or was it too big and scary a task? Even though she had no coaching experience, that's all it took. "I'm too competitive for my own good," Staley says.
She quickly turned around Temple while she finished out her pro hoops career, leading the Owls to four Atlantic 10 tournament titles, their first national ranking and six NCAA tournament appearances. Temple lost in the first round of the NCAAs four times, as Staley learned the limitations of coaching at a mid-major. For all she had accomplished as a player—three consecutive Final Fours at Virginia, enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame—an NCAA title had eluded her. "Part of it is selfish," Staley says. "I want to know what that feels like." So when South Carolina called in 2008, she took the chance to compete in a more prestigious conference. It took only a few months for Staley to tell her staff, "I think I made a mistake!"
"At Temple, we're in North Philly and we had gritty kids who really bought into the idea of defense," says associate head coach Lisa Boyer. "Here, we had to change an entire culture." The Gamecocks had never won an SEC title or produced a conference player of the year; in Staley's first season they won just two SEC games. Desperate to find a remedy, Staley and her staff worked 18-hour days, often leaving the office at 11 p.m. "We ate at Waffle House till the cows came home," Boyer says. "That first year was something else."
In September 2010, a turning point: Staley got a commitment from 6-foot forward Aleighsa Welch, the South Carolina player of the year and the Gamecocks' first highly rated in-state signee. One of three seniors on this season's roster, Welch (9.5 points per game) has become the program's best recruiter, encouraging top prospects to come help South Carolina "write a different story."
They wrote a few new chapters last year. Led by Tiffany Mitchell, a Charlotte-born guard who grew up idolizing Staley and is one of the best shot creators in the country, the Gamecocks went 29--5 and won their first SEC title. All five starters returned, including the 5'9" Mitchell (15.1 points per game), a junior and the reigning conference player of the year.
Wilson picked South Carolina over UConn, Tennessee and North Carolina partially so that family and friends could see her play. But the decision had a second layer: She wants to bring a national title to her home state. Getting a win over the two-time defending champion Huskies next week will give a sense of how close the Gamecocks are. "I absolutely feel a responsibility to win the big game," Staley says. "It fuels me. It's not to dethrone [the Huskies], it's to grow the game. I think people in our sport want us to be successful because it lends hope."