Why Dawn Staley's concerns with Final Four basketball officiating went beyond South Carolina's loss

COLUMBIA — On the Friday morning of South Carolina women's basketball's Final Four game in the NCAA Tournament, coach Dawn Staley went for a long walk, and she couldn't stop thinking about how crucial the referees would be.

A month after the Gamecocks' loss to Iowa, Staley was asked about the officiating in the Final Four on The Pivot podcast hosted by former NFL players Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor. She said she worried coming into the game that the narratives about her team's style of play would impact what happened on the court.

"When people make references of us being overly physical, it has a way of determining how the game is being called," Staley said. "... It was like, we've got to get the right officials. They've got to call the game as they've called the game all season long, and if they can do that then we're good."

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South Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record but fell 77-73 to 2-seed Iowa in Dallas. The Hawkeyes' performance was fueled by a 41-point performance from star guard Caitlin Clark, but Gamecocks' star Aliyah Boston spent much of the game on the bench after picking up two fouls in the first quarter and a third immediately after halftime.

South Carolina finished the game with 20 fouls, one of only two times all season that the team was called for 20-plus fouls. The other was at UConn on Feb. 5, where it was called for 21.

"Aliyah addressed it after the game because she felt coming into it that she wasn't able to play her game. It was a psychological advantage throughout the game," Staley said. "Did we play our best game? No ... but we can't take it if we have to succumb to things like that. Aliyah Boston got beat down. She wasn't able to move like she normally moves."

In the national championship game against LSU, the tables turned against Clark and the Hawkeyes. Clark had three fouls called against her in the first half and picked up her fourth on a technical at the end of the third quarter. Two Iowa starters eventually fouled out of the game.

After LSU's 102-85 victory, there was national outcry about the officiating: The Athletic published a column arguing that women's basketball "deserves better", and headlines about the referees ran in national outlets including CBS Sports, Business Insider and USA TODAY.

The officiating in South Carolina's loss did not receive the same degree of public backlash, though Staley said she believed the games were both called poorly.

"There were articles written on it," Staley said. "Somebody wrote about it and had a quote from a coordinator on the men's side about how bad it was ... I thought it should have been a story about the semifinals when we played Iowa, but that wasn't brought up."

Staley noted that the referees in the championship game were all women, and two were Black women. Because so much national attention came down on the officiating, she worries those women will not get a second chance at those opportunities.

"A whole article on officiating when we have two Black officials, and they'll probably never do another national championship game because they became one of the stories," Staley said. "That was a narrative afterwards, and I don't know if it's because it was two Black officials or just because it was bad officiating, but I know what's going to happen to those two officials ... I've got to look out for them too, because that's the way it is. They may not get another chance."

The Gamecocks' coach joked that she might be fined for speaking about the officiating, as criticizing referees is a violation of the SEC bylaw on sportsmanship. However, Staley feels restricting coaches' comments limits accountability for poorly-called games while also preventing referees from explaining their side of the story.

"We should be able to talk about the officials, whether we agree or disagree, and I think officials should be able to talk," Staley said. "They're becoming more a part of the storyline in our game, and they should be able to defend themselves like we should be able to talk about them without being fined ... It's part of our game that we need to discuss, and it's fair game if they're going to impact it."

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Dawn Staley frustrated with women's Final Four basketball officiating