DALLAS — South Carolina won its first women’s NCAA basketball title Sunday with a victory that represented a diversity of opportunity both for coaches and teams playing for a championship.
With a 67-55 win over Mississippi State, a fellow member of the Southeastern Conference, Dawn Staley became the second African-American coach to win a title since the NCAA began sponsoring a women’s basketball tournament in 1982. Carolyn Peck coached Purdue to the 1999 championship.
Staley was a fierce point guard from Philadelphia and one of the most renowned players in the history of women’s basketball as a collegian, professional and Olympian. She became a coach only reluctantly.
But now, as an NCAA champion and the recently named Olympic coach for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Staley has a chance to become a standard-bearer for women’s basketball as Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and Tara VanDerveer of Stanford move closer to retirement.
“The game is a gift,” Staley, 46, said during the Final Four. She added: “I’m one that thinks basketball is a place of utopia and fairness.”
On Sunday, South Carolina (33-4) became the first NCAA women’s champion in five years not named UConn. For the third time this season, the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs. Mississippi State (34-5) appeared to be somewhat tired or anxious after Friday night’s epic upset in overtime of UConn.
Its star point guard, Morgan William, who hit the decisive shot against the Huskies, played unevenly Sunday and remained on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
South Carolina became a bit rattled after building a 14-point lead in the third quarter, but was settled by its 6-foot-4 post player A’ja Wilson (23 points, 10 rebounds) and guard Allisha Gray (18 points, 10 rebounds).
In the final seconds, Staley hugged her assistant coaches. Opportunities for minority women to become head coaches at the top levels of women’s college basketball have been rare.
Excluding historically black colleges and universities, among 320 Division I women’s teams, only 35 (10.9 percent) have African-American women while 45 percent of the players are black, according to a report to be released this week by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. (Nineteen African-American men also coach women’s teams).
After John Thompson became the first black men’s coach to win an NCAA basketball title at Georgetown in 1984, “more athletic directors were open to putting an African-American in charge,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the diversity institute.
“Hopefully, that will be the case here” after Staley’s success, Lapchick said.
Staley refers to herself as a “dream merchant” who is able to give opportunities to minority players similar to the ones given her. At the 2020 Olympics, she will be the first black woman to be head coach of the U.S. women’s basketball team.
“The game of basketball has been incredibly giving to me,” Staley said. “I feel like I owe it. I’ve got to repay the debt for what it has given me.”
The daughter of parents who moved from South Carolina, Staley grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing project in Philadelphia. She played baseball, football and basketball with her three brothers and other boys and sometimes shot baskets until 2 a.m. This consuming dedication is evident today to her players at South Carolina.
“She’s basically a gym rat and definitely ‘ball is life for her,” Gray said.
Playing mostly against male opponents, Staley developed a flamboyant playground style and robustness that made her the national player of the year while at Dobbins Technical High School. She then reached the Final Four three times at the University of Virginia, won three Olympic gold medals as a point guard and was named one of the top 15 players in the formative years of the WNBA.
With Sunday’s title, she joined Pat Summitt of Tennessee, Kim Mulkey of Baylor and Marianne Stanley of Old Dominion as former star women’s college players who went into coaching and won NCAA championships.
“I have always respected Dawn’s competitiveness, her work ethic, her absolute passion for the game of basketball,” said VanDerveer, who coached Staley to a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “But if she tells you she beat me in chess, she’s a liar.”
While still playing in the WNBA, Staley was somehow convinced in 2000 by Dave O’Brien, then Temple University’s athletic director, to coach the school’s women’s basketball team. Perhaps more out of hometown devotion than enthusiasm, Staley agreed, though she has said many times over the years: “Not one ounce of me wanted to coach.”
In eight seasons at Temple, Staley guided the Owls to six appearances in the NCAA Tournament. But she grew weary of a sobering realization. She could not recruit the caliber of players needed to get Temple beyond the second round of the tournament.
“I thought,” Staley said, “we took Temple as far as we could take it with the players we could get. At tournament time, we always got out-talented. We outplayed people, but they out-talented us.”
In 2008, she left for South Carolina, a team that was underachieving but seemed to have great possibility with the financial resources available to a school in a major football conference.
Staley expected the same kind of dedication that she played with, and some of her players transferred early on. But the Gamecocks soon grew into a national power, attendance began to rise and South Carolina reached the Final Four for the second time in the past three seasons.
Referring to fellow semifinalists Auriemma (eight titles) and VanDerveer (two titles), Staley said, “I want to be among greatness.”
With Sunday’s championship, she has moved into rarefied company.