April 1, 2021
How Dawn Staley created a winning culture at South Carolina
Gamecocks prepare for third Final Four appearance in six years
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The South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team lost an uncharacteristic four games in an already challenging season filled with Covid-19 fears, cancellations and uncertainties.
The losses stung, but the team resolved not to let it keep them from their unfinished business; picking up where they left off last season.
“It’s been very difficult. We’ve been hit with a lot of different stuff,” said point guard Zia Cooke shortly after helping lead the Gamecocks to a 62-34 win over Texas and a trip to the Final Four.
“We lost four games this season. A lot of teams might not be able to come back for stuff like that, but we were able to stick together as a team, and we were able to come back, and now we’re on our way to the Final Four,” said Cooke.
Their third Final Four in program history, all under Head Coach Dawn Staley and all in the last six season.
“We’re going to enjoy this. We’re going to enjoy it because, again, you never know when things will be taken away from you,” Staley said. “Last year things were taken away. I’m glad our players fought to be in this position because we had two very special seniors that didn’t get a chance to finish their careers out in the form of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“So Ty and Kiki, these nets are certainly for you, and we appreciate the legacy that you left with our players to put them in this position to compete at a high level, to forge ahead even though you guys left a big void on our team.” Staley said.
Those special seniors Tyasha Harris (now with the Dallas Wings) and Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan (of the Seattle Storm) were part of last year’s undefeated Gamecocks squad who saw their season cut short when the global pandemic hit in March of 2020. They were at the top of the NCAA and seemingly headed for a national championship. They “finished” the season ranked No. 1 with a 32-1 record and the nation’s longest win streak at 26 consecutive games. The opportunity to claim that crown was stopped in its path, leaving the Gamecocks entering this season with unfinished business on their minds and ready to pick up where they left off.
Their mission continues on Friday night against the No. 1 Stanford Cardinals who are making their 14th Final Four appearance. South Carolina (26-4) won the HemisFair Region against Texas to advance to the national semifinal. En route they used a stifling defense that will certainly be a key to victory in Friday night’s match-up.
Cooke and the Gamecocks held the Longhorns to 23% shooting and outscored them 10-0 in the fourth quarter — the first scoreless quarter in NCAA women’s tournament history since the quarters have started (2016).
“I really didn’t realize that they didn’t score in the fourth quarter. I looked at the stat sheet late, after the celebration, and I didn’t realize that. It didn’t feel like that,” Staley said.
“I say we were just locked in. We were a team that was driven to be where we are right now, and it’s just they wanted to go to the Final Four. They want to win a National Championship. They’re going to give it up on both sides of the ball.”
After the game, Texas head coach Vic Schaefer called the Gamecocks “really a tremendous basketball team. Always well-coached. Dawn and her staff do a tremendous job.I told her it seems like when we play them, their defense is always on point, it rises to the occasion. They always play extremely, extremely hard on that end,” he said. “I thought they came out and punched us.”
They’ll have to come out and punch Stanford as well, knowing that the defense is going to be what makes the difference between not just advancing to the Final Four, but winning a National Championship.
“Definitely. I think defense is what wins games,” said the sophomore Cooke who finished with a game-high 16 points and was named Hemisfair Region Most Outstanding Player award. “Of course, you have to have the offensive part, but if you’re not a well put together defensive team, it’s going to be tough.”
In addition to holding the Longhorns scoreless, the Gamecocks re-wrote some program records with the win — Fewest points allowed in a NCAA Tournament game (34); most blocked shots in a NCAA Tournament game (14); tied fewest points allowed in a quarter (0); tied third fewest points allowed in a second half (12). Carolina also continued its season-long streak of not being outrebounded, holding a 46-33 edge over the Longhorns
In addition to Cooke, who is averaging 14 points per game, Stanford will need to watch out for 6’5 sophomore Aliyah Boston, last season’s SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year and Destanni Henderson – all three of whom are averaging double figures and who have enough offensive weapons to cause trouble.
Creating a Winning Culture
After cutting down the net and savoring the moment, Staley talked about the road, not just to Friday’s Final Four, but to the past three in the last six postseasons, (including winning it all in 2017) and about creating a winning culture at South Carolina.
“When I came to South Carolina, I was used to just winning, to be quite honest, and then when I came here, I thought we would just do the same thing, work hard. The fruits of your labor will produce success, and it was the opposite, the other end of the spectrum where I don’t know if I was patient enough,” she said. “Obviously, I thought we could get it turned around in at least three years.
“Our AD Eric Hyman was like — actually, it was more like he said three to four years, and I was like looking at him like you must not know me,” Staley recalled. “You must not know who you hired. He knew more than I did of what was here in South Carolina, the type of players that were here, and I know they would think differently, and I know they think differently now that they’ve seen how this program has grown.”
Staley focused on recruiting players who loved basketball. “Once we got those players in here, they were able to do it for the love of the game, not because we were telling them to do it, but because they loved the game.
“Once that happened, things started to turn, and we were fortunate to have some of the best talent in the country in the state of South Carolina,” she said. “So we just tried to corner the market to make sure that we got every great kid that was in the state, talented kid that was in the state of South Carolina to South Carolina. Once we got that, then they said, ‘if you win, they will come. If you build it, they’ll come.’ Our fans have done a great job at actually giving us what a successful basketball program should look like and creating a home court advantage.”
Making History Again
This Final Four will be special because, once again, Staley will help make history. For the first time, two Black women will be coaching in the Final Four.
“I’m super proud of Adia (Arizona Wildcats coach Adia Barnes). I wanted that to happen. I was cheering for her to get it done,” Staley said. “It was not for any other reason besides us being represented at the biggest stage of women’s college basketball.
“And that’s because there are so many Black coaches out there that don’t get opportunity because, when ADs don’t see it, they don’t see it, and they’re going to see it on the biggest stage of a Friday night that two Black women are representing two programs in the Final Four, something that has never been done before.”
For this to be happening in 2021 “is long overdue,” Staley said, adding that basketball advocates are “proud and happy. I know my phone is probably full of text messages of Black coaches all across the country, just congratulating us on doing that, on being present, being in the moment, being able to take our programs to this place.
“But certainly, I know Adia utilizes all of her basketball knowledge as a player, and she’s been a coach long enough that she’s not just a suit,” Staley said. “It’s always going to be part player in us, and that’s why our players, we are so relatable to them. We understand it because it’s coming from a place where we’ve done that. We’re trying to help you get to a place where we can have longevity in our league.”
Cooke called two Black women coaching in the Final Four “a beautiful thing. That’s history being made. Just the way that the women are being inspirations to everyone in the world, it’s a beautiful thing.
“I think that a lot of people have also been watching women’s basketball more, so it just shows that we’re on the radar now. Women are standing up and doing the same things that men can do.”
There will be a lot to focus on come Friday night; history being made with Staley and Barnes coaching; thrilling players like South Carolina’s Boston and Stanford’s Kiana Williams. For the Gamecocks, it will hopefully be one more step to their ultimate goal.
“It’s very surreal for me. I was out there, and I was just staring like, wow, I’m really here, like we’re really going to the Final Four,” Cooke said. “I feel like our work isn’t done yet. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high. We still have two more games to go, but I’m ready for it.”