Dawn Staley created South Carolina’s perfect championship season out of last year’s loss

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CLEVELAND — As Dawn Staley stood before her team during a meeting a night before the national championship game, she took a swig of water and began to cough.

“You about to cry, Coach?” a player called from the back of the room.

“No,” she said and then paused. “But I might on Sunday if we win.”

The players laughed, but her assistants sensed sincerity with those words. They’ve seen the burden Staley has carried this year as she has adjusted to a team that’s younger and looser. A team that sometimes wouldn’t respond to text messages or would show up late to meetings. A team that is so unlike the group that graduated a season ago.

Staley has jokingly referred to this season’s roster as a day care, and no one in the Gamecocks locker room really rebuffs that point. They wear it as a badge of honor with their own unique sense of humor. And yet, they won and won and won on the floor as they chased just the 10th undefeated season in women’s college basketball history.

The coaches huddled on the sideline with a minute to go, with the 87-75 win over Iowa assured, the clock just performative at this point and the national championship trophy all but added to their growing case. Staley’s tears began to fall. They continued to fall as she embraced her coaches and players, and as the clock finally expired. They continued during her postgame interview on the court and as she knelt over to catch her breath. She didn’t try to stop them. She wanted to handle the emotions in real time.

“It was emotional for me because of how it ended last year,” Staley said. “It’s heavy, it’s heavy. You carry the burden of every single one of your players, all the coaches and staff members that put so much into our team. And it’s a heavy load to be undefeated, to finish the job. And you get emotional because you just want that for them, and you’re happy that you’re able to — because only one team wins the national championship.”

Last year, the Gamecocks were not that one team. They might’ve been the best team and most talented team. South Carolina led the rankings from preseason through the tournament and as the overwhelming favorite to get the job done. But the Gamecocks did not. They fell short, stunningly, to Iowa. That senior class, which went 129-9 over four seasons and lost just three games total in their junior and senior seasons (by a total of 7 points) did everything right, and yet, they did not end their careers with a win. They ended it like 350 other schools — in a loss.

“Last year rocked me,” Staley said. “It rocked me.”

In Staley’s mind, that didn’t completely compute.

How can a team that does everything right not also win the national title? How was she not able to get that group — players who never gave Staley a reason to complain or wince — over the finish line? How could the best team Staley had ever had not get that championship?

“I think it drove her,” assistant coach Lisa Boyer said. “We still talk about we didn’t get over the hill with that group. They were so talented and such a strong unit. … It was hard to understand.”

Staley was continuing to process the ending of last season when this season began. A team with five new starters. A transfer from Oregon. No one who averaged more than 20 minutes a game, and not a single player who had more than three career starts. In so many ways, it was the opposite of what she was working with last season.

Staley has always talked about the look, sound and feel of a team. And this one? It was loud and silly. The players talked, Staley says, about nothing in particular. It was not just unlike last year’s group. They were unlike any other team she had ever had. Not just in some of the mechanisms of how they played on the floor, but especially off the court.

In staff meetings, they’d use the words “pivot” and “meet them where they are” more than they ever had before. Staley talked about how, with such a young team, the coaches were going to need to be both coach and captain, in a way. It was more work, extra energy. They were building the plane as it taxied down the runway.

“If we would’ve stayed the way we were with the freshies,” assistant coach Jolette Law said, “it just wouldn’t have worked.”

“It’s push and pull, but the standard remains the same,” Boyer added. “You have to meet them halfway.”

That push and pull meant realizing that players were going to take 3s in transition. (“When have you ever seen a Dawn Staley group take a 3 in transition?” said Khadijah Sessions, a former player and assistant coach. “Never.”) It meant getting rid of the rule of no phones the night before games. It meant giving players four days off after the SEC title game. “She was like, ‘Guys, this is what they need. They need space. They need to recharge their batteries,’” Law said. “That’s just being able to understand the makeup and feel of what we have.”

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Junior Bree Hall said she didn’t truly appreciate how much Staley had adjusted to them until the Gamecocks’ swing to North Carolina and Duke a month into the season. While at a team dinner at The Cheesecake Factory, Hall asked the team’s director of basketball operations, Ariana Moore, whether she and the other players could order cheesecake for dessert.

“The last two years, when someone said, ‘You can ask Coach,’ it means, ‘don’t even ask,’” Hall said. “Don’t even bother.”

But Hall did. Staley relented. The players got their cheesecake.

In the midst of a confetti shower and tears, these are the proof points of perfection: Phones, days off, space, recharged batteries, cheesecake. It’s the best evidence that Staley, 2 1/2 decades into her coaching career, is far from finished. The tears are the evidence of the weight she carried through a year that tested her every day.

“This is probably the first time in my career that a team has more stamina in certain areas. Like much more stamina than I could discipline them for,” Staley said. “So I’ve learned to not fight certain battles. Not core value battles, not the core principle of who we are and who I stand for, but just that their identity, they play loose. They play free.”

A year ago — after four seasons of a team doing everything right — the journey did not end in celebration. A year ago, it did not end with a trophy hoisted and a net draped across Staley’s shoulders. But Sunday, she climbed the ladder after a much different journey from ever before, a much harder journey in many ways. It was one that included more pivoting and adjusting, a test every day and reckoning with the ending to last season that rocked her to her core. The sight, sound and feel of this year were completely different, but so too was the ending. In many ways, Staley’s own sight, sound and feel are different because of this year.

The Gamecocks might not have done everything right, might not have even come close, but they were something else that is more rare: They were perfect.

(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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