Led by their Hall of Fame coach, South Carolina has gone from perennial SEC doormat to title contender, a rise the whole nation is watching.
A’ja Wilson’s jaw dropped. It was Feb. 2, 2014, and the 6-foot-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 2008, she told her assistants the Gamecocks had to make it impossible for in-state recruits to say no. A year after Wilson said yes, she is averaging 13.2 points and 7.0 rebounds for the top-ranked Gamecocks (22-0) who take on No. 2 UConn (20-1) in Gampel Pavilion tonight.
Parity in the women’s game is growing, but some team other than Notre Dame needs to prove they can consistently challenge the two-time defending champion Huskies. USC, which returned every starter from a Sweet 16 team that went 29-5 in 2013-14 and added the nation’s second best recruiting class, looks to be the perfect candidate. Wilson picked South Carolina over offers from UConn, Tennessee and North Carolina partially because she wanted family and friends to see her play. But the decision had a second layer: She wants to bring a national title to her home state.
That doing so would be good for women’s basketball is just a bonus.
Staley, 44, likes to say she got tricked into coaching. Still playing with the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting in 2000, she politely declined then-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 Temple’s program, or was it too big and scary a task? “I’m too competitive for my own good,” Staley says now, and no doubt O’Brien knew that when he framed the question that way. Staley, who planned to play in the 2000 Olympics, called up Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, a friend and mentor, for advice. “Don’t do it,” VanDerveer said, because she thought a playing/coaching combo would be too much for anyone. “If anything,” Staley says now, “that helped me decide to do it.”
Staley quickly turned Temple into a winner, leading the Owls to four Atlantic 10 tournament titles, six NCAA tournament appearances and its first national ranking as she continued her tour through professional hoops. She didn’t trade her sneakers for stilettos full-time until Aug. 19, 2006, her last game with the Houston Comets. 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’s accomplished as a player -- three consecutive Final Fours, enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame -- an NCAA title eluded Staley in her career at Virginia. “Part of it is selfish,” she 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. Hired at a base of $250,000, the same as South Carolina men’s coach Darrin Horn, 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 won just two conference games in Staley’s first season, as two starters suffered ACL tears a week apart, depleting their talent. Desperate to find a remedy, Staley and her staff worked 18-hour days, often leaving the office at 10 or 11 p.m. only to find Columbia’s nightlife shut down. “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 and a 2014 honorable mention All-America, Welch has become the program’s “best mouthpiece,” Staley says. Welch connects with recruits and their families, encouraging prospects to come help South Carolina “write a different story.”
They wrote a few chapters last year as the Gamecocks recorded their best season in school history. Led by Tiffany Mitchell, a 5-9 Charlotte-born guard who grew up idolizing Staley and is one of the best shot creators in the country, the Gamecocks won the program’s first-ever SEC title.
Last March, South Carolina fell to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 at Stanford. Impressed by their play and what they would return in 2014-15, VanDerveer stuck her head in USC’s postgame locker room, and told them that with their talent, they’d better win an NCAA title. After she finished praising them, players asked if they were scheduled to play the Cardinal anytime soon. “The ‘S’ in Stanford does not stand for stupid,” VanDerveer told them. “We were smart enough not to schedule you. I want to keep my job.”
Her words reinforced what the Gamecocks already believed they were capable of. “I’ve already been to two Sweet 16s,” Welch says. “It’s not cool anymore.”
The Gamecocks average close to 12,000 fans at CLA, the only women’s team in the country to bring in more than 10,000 a game. Spurrier, who left Staley a message that she played on speakerphone for the team after South Carolina earned the No. 1 ranking on Nov. 24, is a regular attendee with his wife, Jerri. A recruiting trip to Atlanta forced him to miss a recent game against Texas A&M, but before he left, he wondered aloud if it would be impolite to ask the recruit’s parents to turn on ESPN2 during the visit.
Ticket sales in Columbia are high for a few reasons: After a disappointing 7-6 season from Spurrier’s group, South Carolina fans are hungry for a winner. But many have also built a personal relationship with this team. Staley is asked to sign autographs and pose for photos everywhere she goes. As a player she had a hard, Philly-bred edge, but as a coach she is engaging and warm, eager to strike up conversations with strangers during team outings, recruiting trips and even hospital visits.
Just before Thanksgiving in 2013, assistant coach Nikki McCray was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told the team when they returned from winter break and attended her first chemotherapy session on Dec. 26. Staley and Boyer sat with McCray during her chemo appointments, all three of them dressed in pink Superwoman t-shirts. They watched film, discussed recruits and ironed out scouting reports. Other patients frequently asked about the Gamecocks and their accomplishments. Declared cancer-free on Nov. 18, 2014, McCray doesn’t visit the chemo room anymore, but she still sees some of the patients when they come to home games.
Besides support from fans, Staley believes many others around the country are also rooting for South Carolina. Admired by her peers for her ability to transition from player to coach and build a program from the bottom -- VanDerveer says “if I’m not president of the Dawn Staley fan club, I’ll arm wrestle for it” -- everyone understands the need for someone new at the top.
“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. There are a lot more programs that look and feel like South Carolina than look and feel like UConn, Tennessee and Notre Dame. The struggle has been real for us. I think people in our sport want us to be successful because it lends hope.”
For all the talk about signing Wilson, the most impressive player in the 2014 class might be Bianca Cuevas, a 5-6 guard from the Bronx who picked the Gamecocks over Kentucky, Louisville and Tennessee. Hard-nosed, feisty, stubborn and raised on courts dominated by boys, she is Staley, Part II … even if Cuevas had no idea who Staley was when the recruitment process started.
At Temple, Boyer and the other assistants leaned heavily on Staley’s rep around Philadelphia to sign players. Staley might not hand out her résumé to prospects, but with three framed Olympic jerseys hanging behind her desk, she doesn’t need to. Welch had to Google Staley before she fully grasped what the former USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year had accomplished. “She did everything at every level,” Welch says. “This woman was the truth.”
Mitchell, who grew up rooting for the Charlotte Sting, is the exception. She could teach a class on Dawn Staley, and, in fact, she already has. When she was in the third grade at Oakhurst Elementary in Charlotte, Mitchell wrote a report on the history of basketball and “my favorite player and all of her accomplishments.” In the rec room at her parents’ house, a signed Staley Sting jersey hangs on the wall. Mitchell hid it during Staley’s in-home visit because “I wasn’t trying to be a stalker.” She committed early to USC, during her junior year.
Before Staley and her staff focused in on the 2014 class, they changed their game plan: Along with weekly calls to the players, they would set up weekly calls with the mothers, recognizing that it’s often the mom's approval that matters most. “Some of these dads think because their daughters are playing basketball [the dads are] in charge,” Staley says rolling her eyes. “No. The moms are running the show.”
Wilson’s decision to attend South Carolina signaled it’s OK to pick someone besides a traditional power. And Cuevas’ signing proved USC is a national player in recruiting, and can go anywhere in the country to pluck away a top prospect. Twenty seven years ago Staley left the North Philly housing projects for Virginia because she wanted to go somewhere that hadn’t won a title. Now, she makes that same recruiting pitch.
“This game has given her so much,” Boyer says. “It changed her whole life. It changed her family’s life. Just because she could play basketball.”
The next step, as Staley sees it, is to change the game.