From 'daycare' to dream run: Why Dawn Staley's third title at South Carolina might be her most impressive yet

CLEVELAND — This was all supposed to happen last year. The confetti bombs, the trophy lifts, the emotional finale to an unscathed season.

A year ago, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley took an early exit off the Final Four stage, sent Aliyah Boston’s senior class to the WNBA and contemplated how to coach a young team that wouldn’t make her life as easy.

It was a tough season of adjustment and 12 hours before the national title game, she said it didn’t feel as if her team was entering the game undefeated again. She had seen lax preparation early in the season and bad basketball at points over the past couple of months. This is a group she lovingly calls a "daycare" because of the youth on the team.

"They came in so different than any of our teams that I just didn't see — it was a hard starting point," Staley said the morning after clinching the Albany 1 regional for a berth back in the Final Four. "Where do you start with a team that is young, but they're probably feeling themselves a little bit because we've had success, and feeling themselves a little bit because they finally will get an opportunity to play?"

Staley started by trusting the process and ended surrounded by her third championship team. With Boston, now an analyst for ESPN, standing next to her, Staley uncharacteristically broke down shortly after the buzzer sounded on a 87-75 win over Iowa at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. She leaned over toward the floor, rose up and attempted to speak.

“It was emotional to me because of how it ended last year,” Staley told reporters afterward.

Staley said she was emotional at the beginning of the game, too, because she didn’t want what happened last year to happen again. It was Iowa that bounced South Carolina in the semifinal in Dallas.

“I wasn't going to allow what I felt happened to us last year to happen this year,” Staley said. “So I had a little bit of PTSD, and I addressed it in real-time.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrates after her team beat Iowa to win the national championship. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrates after her team beat Iowa to win the national championship. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

It may be the best coaching job of her career. Her first title came with A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray leading the way as juniors in 2017. Both remain in the WNBA with Wilson a two-time MVP and two-time champion. The second was in 2022 during Boston’s junior year and Naismith-winning season. Five of those players are or were in the pros. Staley is 3 for 3 in national title games as a coach.

But this squad? They’re all incredibly talented without a superstar among them. Center Kamilla Cardoso is a potential lottery pick in next week’s WNBA Draft, but she doesn’t take over games like Wilson or Boston. Staley herself said ahead of the week in Cleveland that she was shocked to be here.

She spent much of the offsesaon fighting for the culture and chemistry built within her program over the past seven to 10 years. She didn't trust the process early and player didn't understand how to prep each month for the next. But as she embraced it, and accepted this group might be different than previous ones, the wins began to come and they became better and better.

"You can't start from where we lost in the Final Four," Staley said after the Albany regional. "You have to start this year with a new group over, wipe the slate clean, allow them to figure out what their identity will be, both on and off the court, and ride the wave a little bit, but also don't ever sacrifice our core value."

South Carolina's standard is winning championships and developing the best talent To win the final game of their undefeated season, two freshmen stepped up off the bench for big performances. Tessa Johnson averaged 6.6 points in 17.9 minutes per game in the regular season. Against Iowa, she scored a team-high 19 while shooting a clutch 3 of 6 from 3-point range in 25 minutes.

“She's always ready for the moments,” teammate Raven Johnson said. “When her number is called, she's always ready. Every shot she puts up, it goes in. Just what Tessa does.”

MiLaysia Fulwiley put her moves on display again to score nine points with four rebounds and four assists. Johnson played strong defense on Clark, keeping her to 30 when the superstar dropped 41 on them last year. Te-Hina Paopao was 3-of-4 shooting from the perimeter, missing her final attempt, to lift South Carolina in the area that lost them the game last year. She had 14 points, Cardoso had 15 and Chloe Kitts had 11. The Gamecocks collectively outrebounded the undersized Hawkeyes, 51-29.

It’s the depth that crushed opponents all season and the bench scored 37 of their 87 points while spreading around 17 fouls. That’s a credit to Staley’s coaching that she can bring so much talent into the program that half of it sits and isn’t bothered by it enough to leave or create problems.

“To have a roster that goes nine, 10 deep is — it's a privilege, it really is,” Staley said. “But it has to be developed slowly and the right way. Like, there's a lot of trust that has to be built because there's some games that some of them won't play a whole lot, especially the people that's coming off the bench.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net after winning the championship on Sunday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net after winning the championship on Sunday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

A key to this team's success was that many of them had waited in the wings for their shot, or learned from hardship. Raven Johnson was waved off in the matchup last year because she wasn't a strong 3-point shooter. She said after the win she wanted to see Iowa in the title game because of that.

"It was apology to my teammates, my coaches and myself," Johnson said. "And I just feel like, like I said, it was a revenge tour. And there's no better way than to play them in the championship and beat them."

Part of Staley's coaching this year was learning how to meet her players where they were and accept it would be a different approach than in the past.

"For Raven, I think it was psychologically helpful to be able to play Iowa and Caitlin, to just release," Staley said. "As a player, you want to release certain things that have held you captive. And I do think the waving off in the Final Four last year held her captive, to where usually you just quietly do things and go about your business."

The only departing senior on this team is Cardoso, who spent two years playing behind Boston. Paopao, the key transfer Staley brought in last summer to make sure there wasn’t a repeat tournament loss, said she intends to come back for her extra year of COVID-19 eligibility.

The freshmen will be more experienced, which is scary given how good they already are through this season. A No. 2-ranked recruiting class is coming into Columbia in a few months as well.

“This team, we're going to be good,” Raven Johnson said. “Coach Staley, we have the best coach, what, in the country, in the nation, in the whole wide world? It's no telling what she's going to add to the pieces that's already here. I just say be on the lookout.”

It will be difficult to top this one, but one thing Staley hasn’t done yet? Win it back to back.