April 7, 2024 

With third national title, Dawn Staley breathes rarified air

Staley led South Carolina to an undefeated season that ended with a trophy

CLEVELAND — In her sixth Final Four appearance, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley once again led her team to the game’s most prized accomplishment — a national championship. With the win, Staley and the Gamecocks join an exclusive group of three-title NCAA DI and/or Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) Large College/DI women’s basketball programs (listed below, in alphabetical order):

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  • Baylor (2005, 2012, 2019)
  • Delta State (*1975, *1976, *1977)
  • Immaculata (*1972, *1973, *1974)
  • La. Tech (*1981, 1982, 1988)
  • Old Dominion (*1979, *1980, 1985)
  • Stanford (1990, 1992, 2021)
  • South Carolina (2017, 2022, 2024)

*AIAW champions

The only programs that have won more than three titles are UConn (11) and Tennessee (eight).

Additionally, the Gamecocks become just the third team in the AIAW/NCAA eras to to complete an undefeated season. Staley now shares rarified air occupied by only seven other coaches — Geno Auriemma at UConn (six undefeated seasons), Jody Conradt (Texas), Sonja Hogg (La. Tech), Cathy Rush (Immaculata), Pat Summitt (Tennesee), Kim Mulkey (Baylor) and Margaret Wade (Delta State).

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Dawn Staley is pictured on the sideline with her right hand raised and finger pointed forward
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley directs her team from the sideline during the 2024 Final Four semifinal at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

In addition to making more space in her trophy case for a third NCAA national championship trophy, Staley returns to Columbia with some other hardware. For the fourth time in five years, Dawn Staley is the Naismith Coach of the Year. In 2020, Staley became the first former Naismith Player of the Year to also win Naismith Coach of the Year. Staley is also this year’s AP Coach of the Year, the second time she’s received the award (2020).

“I didn’t envision it,” Staley told reporters when asked about the heights her program have reached. “I know what hard work looks like. I’ve been around some of the greatest women’s basketball players and coaches over my career as a player. I know what that looks like. I know what high-level basketball looks like. And I know high-level people, how they treat people.”

A Naismith Hall of Famer as a player (2013), Staley’s fingerprints are all over the game. A three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player, the 53-year-old legend also coached Team USA to Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

“Dawn Staley is the leader of women’s basketball right now,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder told reporters. “She [was] our Olympic coach. She is the person that we are all looking up to.”

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More important than any wins, championships or trophies are the relationships that Staley is able to foster with the student-athletes in her program. A self-described “dream merchant,” she takes tremendous pride in the relationships that she builds with players in her program. Sophomore guard Raven Johnson, glowing in the bask of a national title, reflected on what Staley means to her.

“The GOAT, you mean the Dawn Staley? It means a lot just to play — just to learn from her,” Johnson told reporters. “She’s like a mom. I mean, I don’t know, I go to her about everything. I could joke around with her … could do anything, just anything. She’s like a mom, like a home away from home. It’s a home-away-from-home feeling.”

Guard Te-Hina Paopao, who made an immediate impact on the Gamecocks program as a transfer from Oregon this season, echoed Johnson’s sentiments.

“She’s so important to have in people’s lives. She’s amazing … 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 [unimaginable]. We’re all just really blessed to have someone like her in our corner. She just impacted our lives for the better,” Paopao said.

Even with a full trophy case and her named etched permanently in the history books, Staley remains humble. Her approach to coaching is rooted in a deep sense of gratitude for the game that’s provided her with the platform that she has today, and she strives each day to pay it forward.

“I’m forever indebted to basketball, so I’m always going to take care of it,” Staley told reporters. “I am always going to make sure that our players are respectful. I’m always going to make sure that they know the history of our game. I want to make sure they are always respectful to our opponents.

“And when you do it that way, in return, you have success. You have success in the wins column and very little disappointment in the loss column.”

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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