Dawn Staley doesn’t mince words when she talks about her first season as women’s basketball coach at South Carolina in 2008-09.
Coming off a successful eight-season run at Temple, Staley inherited a program that hadn’t advanced to the NCAA tournament since the 2002-03 season. The Gamecocks had reached the Women’s National Invitation Tournament for three seasons in a row prior to Staley’s arrival, but the team hadn’t finished above .500 in the Southeastern Conference in that stretch.
That is how Staley embarked on her rebuilding plan. Her initial team at South Carolina won only 10 games and finished 2-12 (11th) in the 12-team SEC.
“The year you brought up (2008-09), those are memories I keep etched in my mind because it fuels me not to want to go back to those places,” Staley said. “I want those memories to help shape the future of our program.”
It took two more seasons for Staley to push South Carolina to .500 in the league and back to the postseason (WNIT). The program had its breakthrough in Staley’s tenure in 2011-12, when it went 25-10 and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. Another 25-victory season followed last season.
This season, South Carolina (20-2, 8-1 SEC) is soaring even higher. The Gamecocks are ranked No. 6 in this week’s The Associated Press poll. The ranking eclipses last week’s position (No. 7), which was its highest since Jan. 21, 2002. South Carolina’s best start in program history in the SEC has it leading the league.
“We are enjoying being at the top of the SEC,” said Staley, whose team will play Mississippi State (16-7, 3-6) at 7 p.m. Thursday at Humphrey Coliseum.
South Carolina has a balanced attack that leads the league in field goal shooting percentage (49.1 percent) and field goal percentage defense (34.3). MSU is 12th (41.3) and ninth (39.3) in those categories. The Gamecocks also boast three of the league’s top 21 scorers — sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell (ninth in scoring at 15.5 ppg., third in FG percentage, 52.6 percent), junior forward Aleighsa Welch (16th at 13.4 ppg., first at 61.1), and freshman center Alaina Coates (21st at 12.3 ppg.).
With seven players from the state of South Carolina, which is the most in her six seasons with the program, Staley has found the right formula to keep some of the best recruits at home. South Carolina could add to that haul. It is in the running for A’ja Wilson, a 6-foot-5 forward/center from Hopkins, S.C., the No. 1 recruit in the nation, according to Dan Olson, director of espnW’s HoopGurlz. Wilson could join Coates, a 6-4 player from Irmo, S.C., and Welch, a 6-footer from Goose Creek, S.C., to form one of the nation’s most imposing frontcourts.
To get to that point, Staley said she took a page from South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier in building the women’s basketball program. She admits there were times when she wondered when the program’s fortunes were going to change, but she said Spurrier and his wife, Jerri, told her to be patient and that things would change as soon as she brought in players who believed in what she was doing. In six seasons, Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, 2004) has transformed the program into one of the SEC’s elite. This season, South Carolina is third in average home attendance (5,491) behind Tennessee (11,198) and Kentucky (7,076).
“What we tied to do when we came here was we wanted to make sure we found the best talent in South Carolina,” said Staley, who led Temple to six 20-win seasons and six trips to the NCAA tournament in eight seasons. “None of us came with any ties to South Carolina. We had some ties to Georgia programs, but none in South Carolina. We petty much tried to figure out every single player in the state of South Carolina. What we came back with once we did our research and talked to different people is we found a lot of young, talented players. It took the time from having two (players from South Carolina in her first season) to adding more and more each year. We felt like we wanted to be the cornerstone for the best in South Carolina to stay at home.”
Staley admits her team isn’t the most talented in the league. But she takes pride in the Gamecocks’ ability to stay true to form for long stretches. She feels that focus enables her team to prevent opponents from going to their strengths. On the flip side, she said all of her players are “winners” and have accepted coaching and have bought into the mid-set that there is “a certain look, a certain feel, and a certain sound” to the game that helps them be successful. It is the same formula she followed when she was an All-America guard at Virginia and a seven-time All-Star as a professional player.
Staley wants the Gamecocks to play with the same tenacity. She said she has heard her players called “street fighters” and that opponents liken matchups against South Carolina to a trip to the dentist’s office, but she said her team doesn’t foul a lot and is not a rough-and-tumble squad. Instead, she credits her coaching staff for preparing the players to beat their opponents to the spot and to make them work for everything they get.
One of those assistants is former Tennessee All-American Nikki McCray, who announced in January she has breast cancer. Staley said McCray has kept a positive attitude through her fight and that her positivity has rubbed off on the team.
“We are all drawing strength from Nikki,” Staley said. “She has been an incredible woman through this and has never missed a day of work.”
That’s the same approach Staley has had in her time in Columbia. S.C. Now that the blueprint has been established, Staley is focused on building an even stronger foundation.
“We lived the entire bottom of the SEC five years ago, and we want to smell the coffee, to smell the flowers, and to make sure we are enjoying the journey,” Staley said.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.