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South Carolina’s three titles in seven years speak volumes of Dawn Staley’s remarkable tenure as coach


By Ben Morse and Sarah Sidner, CNN

(CNN) — Caitlin Clark’s last dance in the NCAA dominated conversation ahead of Sunday’s women’s national championship game.

Could the Iowa star cap off her historic time in college basketball with the final and so-far elusive accolade: a national title?

But standing in the way of the unstoppable force that is Clark was the immovable object in the form of the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Unbeaten throughout the season and obliterating all that came against them, Dawn Staley’s squad is the dominant team in the women’s game.

And Sunday’s game at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, was more proof of the juggernaut Staley has built in Columbia, with South Carolina vanquishing Clark and Iowa 87-75 to finish the season as undefeated NCAA national champions, the 10th team in women’s college basketball to achieve the feat.

“Although we haven’t been the most talked-about team in this whole women’s basketball year,” Staley acknowledged in an interview with CNN on Monday, “we’ll be talked about a lot in the off-season.

“I’d much rather have it that way after having won another national championship.”

It’s the program’s third national title – all of which have come with Staley at the helm – and one which vaults the former six-time WNBA All-Star into the bracket of the legendary women’s college basketball coaches.

The magnitude of the moment seemed to dawn on Staley as the confetti rained down on her team after another successful season, breaking down in tears as her championship-winning squad celebrated reaching the mountain top yet again.

Despite having an otherworldly recent record – the Gamecocks are now 109-3 over the last three seasons – the culmination of last season’s campaign, in which they heartbreakingly lost to Clark and the Hawkeyes in the Final Four, has loomed large for Staley and her coaching staff.

With that recent history playing on her mind throughout this year’s tournament, the emotions caught up to her before and after Sunday’s season finale.

“I had a little bit of PTSD, and I addressed it in real time,” Staley told reporters. “I mean, 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. There are so many conversations you have with parents, with any significant person in our players’ lives, that the rigors of the season, you just have to face that music with them.

“Sometimes, it’s good. Sometimes, it’s challenging. Sometimes, it’s just a really hard conversation. Then once you win, this is the reason why. It builds trust amongst everybody that’s involved in our players’ lives.”


Historically, the Gamecocks weren’t considered one of women’s college basketball’s dominant teams.

The organization had conference success in the 1980s under Nancy Wilson and reached the Elite Eight in 2002 under Susan Walvius, but was never truly considered a contender when it came to challenging for the national title.

That was until Staley arrived in 2008.

The team’s record improved year-upon-year after she arrived in South Carolina. But more than that, she was able to form connections with young prospects and develop stars.

From her first title winning team in 2017, three members of the South Carolina squad were drafted in the first round of the WNBA draft that year, with A’ja Wilson selected with the first overall pick of the 2018 draft by the Las Vegas Aces.

Wilson is arguably the shining star of Staley’s career as a coach, going onto win back-to-back WNBA titles and two WNBA MVP awards since moving to the professional game.

The talent production line out of Columbia has kept on churning out hugely impactful players – just last year, Aliyah Boston was picked with the No. 1 overall pick by the Indiana Fever, winning Rookie of the Year in her debut campaign in the WNBA.

Staley has brought about her success not only with her coaching nous, but with her ability to relate to her players.

This year’s women’s March Madness Most Outstanding Player, Kamilla Cardoso, is a perfect example of that.

Cardoso arrived in the US from her native Brazil as a 15-year-old who wasn’t able to speak much English. After a year in Syracuse, she transferred to South Carolina in 2021, playing back-up to Boston during the team’s 2022 national title run.

But she was finally inserted into the starting line-up this season, blossoming into one of the sport’s most dominant centers.

After South Carolina’s third title in seven seasons and in her final college game, Cardoso paid tribute to the leadership Staley provided when she needed it most.

“I feel like, especially me, I’m international, and I don’t have my family here. She’s just like a family for me, a family away from home. And I’m just so thankful to have her as a coach,” a tearful Cardoso said.

“She means a lot to me. I feel like, since the first day I got to South Carolina, she’s been working so hard to get me ready and prepared for moments like this. I’m just so thankful to have her as a coach. She’s like an inspiration for me and a lot of young girls out there.

“She’s the best in the business, you already know.”

“Dawn Staley is the leader of women’s basketball right now,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said after losing to the Gamecocks.

‘She’s like a mom’

Despite consistently losing her best players every season to the WNBA, Staley has still found a way to win.

Her second title came in 2022 and she was only stopped from repeating in 2023 by a stunning performance from Clark.

This season is somewhat of a compensation for Staley, making up for last year’s pain.

“This is different because it was so unexpected,” she told CNN of the team’s latest title. “Yes, we have a team full of talented players.

“But as our season ended last year in the semifinals, you’re not promised to win a national championship. You’re certainly not promised when you’re not bringing back any of your starters.

“It was a long, hard road to get our team to where they are today, but throughout the season, this team just organically fell in love with each other and they did not want to let each other down.

“It is not often that you see young people connect in this way and actually really not lose a game and be as free-playing, as loose.”

Sunday’s title drew Staley level with Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer in fourth place on the winningest Division I women’s basketball coaches list with three national championships.

She is still some way behind UConn’s Geno Auriemma who has 11 titles to his name, but as the only Black coach in that top five list, Staley is already creating history.

After the victory over Iowa, some of the players she’s molded into champions spoke of their appreciation of having her as a head coach and mentor.

“It means a lot just to play – just to learn from her,” guard Raven Johnson told reporters. “I go to her about everything. I could joke around with her. I could do anything, just anything. She’s like a mom, like a home away from home. It’s a home-away-from-home feeling.

“There’s no better way to have a coach like her and be so comfortable around her. And I take pride in what she do for us, on and off the court, not just basketball.”

Fellow Gamecocks guard Te-Hina Paopao concurred, saying Staley has “impacted our lives for the better.”

“God has put her in my life, and she’s impacted it so much, not only me, but my family,” Paopao said. “She changes lives for the better.

“I wish you guys could experience that and just how much she’s helped me as a player and as a woman. And she’s just amazing, man. It’s a blessing. Just playing for her is so much fun. People just love playing for her. People would run through brick walls for her.

“To be able to have a coach like that, it’s unimagined. We’re all just really blessed to have someone like her in our corner.”

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