How South Carolina's Dawn Staley forged her championship legacy after heartbreak of 1991

CLEVELAND — Dawn Staley still goes over critical mistakes from 1991.

It was March 31, 33 years ago. Staley was the point guard for the Virginia Cavaliers and the best player in America.

The Cavaliers were up five with 1:25 to play in regulation in the national championship game against the Tennessee Lady Vols and legendary coach Pat Summitt.

Then, suddenly, they were tied with four seconds to play. Then-UVA coach Debbie Ryan called a timeout and drew up a play for Staley to get to the rim. (You could not advance the ball in the final minute back then.)

Staley got the inbound, took off, got to the basket, stretched to the rim through traffic … and missed. Virginia got the board and another look, but couldn’t score. The game went to double overtime, Staley fouled out and Virginia lost, 70-67.

Dawn Staley, shown during a Virginia Cavaliers game on Dec. 28, 1991.
Dawn Staley, shown during a Virginia Cavaliers game on Dec. 28, 1991.

Though she was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player – finishing that game with 28 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals – the game haunted Staley for years.

“To this day we talk about, she should have gone off of two feet because she was in traffic,” Ryan told USA TODAY Sports. “She’s as competitive today as she was then.”

But “we resolved that with 2017,” Ryan said, referencing Staley’s first championship as a coach with South Carolina.

And now, after leading the Gamecocks to their third national title, 1991 is a (very) distant memory.

On Sunday, Staley’s team won their third NCAA championship, topping Iowa 87-75. She became the fifth head coach, and the first Black coach, to win three or more women's basketball titles, joining Summit (eight) UConn’s Geno Auriemma (11), LSU’s Kim Mulkey (four) and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (three).

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, left, and guard Raven Johnson (25) react during the 2024 NCAA championship game against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, left, and guard Raven Johnson (25) react during the 2024 NCAA championship game against the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Staley was noticeably emotional all game. She looked close to tears when arguing with officials in the first half, as Iowa built an 11-point lead, saying afterward that she was experiencing “a little bit of PTSD,” because “I didn’t want what happened last year (when Iowa beat South Carolina in the national semifinals) to happen this year.”

After South Carolina secured the win and a perfect 38-0 season, Staley was handed the trophy and she broke down for real.

“You carry the burden of every single one of your players, all the coaches and staff members that put so much into our team,” she said. “And it's a heavy load to be undefeated, to finish the job. You get emotional because you just want that for them.”

That Staley won her third championship in the last seven tournaments is a testament to the fact that one of the best point guards of all time now runs the best program in the current era of women’s basketball. South Carolina’s perfect 38-0 season is the 10th undefeated NCAA women’s basketball champion, and all the more impressive given the exploding parity across the sport.

Staley never got to experience the joy of winning a title as a player, but as the Gamecocks prepped Saturday to take on Iowa, Staley got reflective.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” she said of the 1991 heartbreak. “The fact that we won in 2017 made it really special. … I didn’t think I was going to coach. I thought that was going to be that. But once I got into coaching, I wanted to check that (national championship) box off."

She was delighted to find that as a coach, she enjoyed winning it just as much, maybe more, than she would have as a player. (Keep in mind that while Staley didn’t experience winning an NCAA title, she has plenty of personal accomplishments, including three Olympic gold medals.)

“There are many more people that you get to celebrate with when you (win) it as a coach,” Staley said. “It’s so gratifying.”

For Staley, those aren’t empty words. When she won her first in 2017, she had mini replica national championship trophies made for her Virginia teammates and coaches because, “I wanted them to feel something tangible of winning the national championship, because they gave me a desire to want to do it.”

Ryan echoed Staley’s joy at sharing with others, saying that when you win as a coach “it’s a different dynamic.” She still has that 2017 trophy, and while she doesn’t need or expect any more replicas, Ryan suspects Staley is only beginning her collection.

“She still has that drive in her that she did as a player,” Ryan said. “I always felt like she’d be a great coach. You almost could have predicted this. And she’s just now starting to dominate the scene.”

There’s no question the 1991 championship hurt Staley deeply. It didn’t scar her, though. It bruised her, but those marks faded, with time and other trophies.

Just imagine how distant they’ll feel when she wins her fourth.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Dawn Staley forged her South Carolilna NCAA championship legacy