TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Dawn Staley appeared in the women's national semifinals three times as a player. Now, she's back for the first time as a coach, guiding Final Four newcomer South Carolina.
And, the former Virginia star, whose Southeastern Conference champions square off against Notre Dame on Sunday is paying tribute to an old and dear mentor during the Gamecocks debut on college basketball's biggest stage.
John Chaney won 741 games during a long career at Cheney State and Temple, where Staley made the transition from WNBA standout to coaching. He reached the Elite Eight of the men's NCAA Tournament five times - and lost.
''He did not get to the point of the Final Four, but certainly I dedicate our time being at the Final Four to him, and all the other players that have affected my life as a coach,'' Staley said Saturday.
Staley spent eight years at Temple before taking over a struggling South Carolina program and transforming the Gamecocks (34-2) into a national power over the past seven seasons.
Chaney, 83, helped her changed the culture of Temple's women's program, too. And, Staley hasn't forgotten.
''A lot of times our male counterpart at different universities, they're not as open to someone like coach Chaney. He would come to our practices, he would allow us to come into his practice and learn,'' she said.
''He is a perfectionist. He put his team into positions to win basketball games that no one else thought they should have been in,'' Staley added. ''For that reason, he'll always be one of the best mentors that I've ever had.''
Perennial national championship contender Notre Dame (35-2) is appearing in its fifth consecutive Final Four. The Irish took a perfect record into last year's title game, where they lost to unbeaten Connecticut.
Coach Muffet McGraw has her team back in the national semifinals, despite losing three starters - two of them first-round WNBA draft picks.
''Out of all those five, this team has improved the most,'' McGraw said. ''I think this is the youngest team we've ever taken. Not a senior in the starting lineup.
''For them to get it together and just keep getting better, it's been really fun to watch.''
Some things to watch in Sunday's South Carolina-Notre Dame matchup:
PHILLY CONNECTIONS: Staley's ties to Chaney aren't only Philadelphia connection at this Final Four. McGraw and UConn coach Geno Auriemma, both natives of West Chester, also grew up in the area. ''We're thinking maybe a cheesesteak to the winner,'' McGraw said. ''We always thought that so much began in Philadelphia on the men's and women's side. To have three of us, and we all still speak the language. I think we're all pretty much the same, and tell it like it is. I can really appreciate that. ... It's a shame that the Final Four is not in Philly.''
KEY MATCHUP: One of the keys to Sunday night's semifinal will be how South Carolina's backcourt, led by All-American Tiffany Mitchell, matches up Notre Dame's tandem of All-American Jewell Loyd, Lindsay Allen and Michaela Mabrey. Staley isn't sharing the Gamecocks' game plan. ''This time around, they're going to have to make plays. Tiff is going to have to make plays for us. Jewell is going to have to make plays for Notre Dame for both of us to be successful.''
TURNING POINT: McGraw said there were a few points in the season when Notre Dame's season could have nosedived, none bigger than a come-from-behind 94-93 overtime win at DePaul in December - four days after an 18-point home loss to UConn. That began a stretch in which the Irish have won 27 of 28. ''I think we were down six with a minute to go and somehow won the game. ... For us to win that game I think gave us so much confidence,'' McGraw said.
IN FOCUS: Staley is drawing on her experience as a player who participated in three Final Fours to keep the Gamecocks focused on the task at hand - trying to win two games - instead of all the festivities surrounding the event. ''All the hoopla before you actually play the game plays a role in having the energy to finish the job,'' Staley said. ''Our main focus is to win a national championship. You don't want to shortchange this opportunity by being clouded by something other than the basketball game.''