COLUMBIA — The first thing South Carolina coach Dawn Staley did was congratulate her former Virginia teammate Audra Smith after she became the head women’s coach at intrastate rival Clemson.
Then Staley added a friendly warning: Don’t expect their close ties to stop Staley’s Gamecocks from hammering the Lady Tigers when they get the chance.
“I’ll love up on her after we play,” Staley said. “I don’t have any animosity toward the coaches per se, but we don’t want to lose to Clemson.”
Welcome to the latest wrinkle in this Palmetto State rivalry.
This one is being pushed by a fiery all-world former point guard and a one-time solid finisher in the post who helped Virginia reach three Final Fours and win two Atlantic Coast Conference championships from 1989-92.
But there were a few adjustments before success, the two didn’t mesh right away.
They were roommates at Virginia for about six months until they found their lifestyles weren’t in synch: Staley was a night owl who liked horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while Smith was in bed early and liked tamer fare.
But Staley was among the first to call Smith after she accepted the Clemson job last April to welcome her to the South.
“I was like, ‘Hey, you’re from Philly. What do you know about the South? I was born and raised in Georgia,’” Smith said.
Staley’s got a jump on her friend as far as building a winning basketball program at their school. She is starting her sixth season at South Carolina and coming off two consecutive 20-win seasons and a pair of trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Smith, who joined their former Virginia coach Debbie Ryan’s staff after college, spent the past nine seasons coaching at the University of Alabama and finished her tenure with four consecutive winning campaigns. The Lady Tigers, though, have struggled in recent years, going just 10-38 in ACC play the past three seasons.
Smith said the rivalry won’t come between them, except for game day.
“When the game’s over, we’re sisters again,” Smith said.
Their first meeting will be Nov. 20, when Clemson plays host to South Carolina.
“Sit close to them,” Ryan said. “It’ll be hilarious to hear them talk to each other during the game.”
Staley was the cautious, inner-city point guard who had a stellar prep career at Philadelphia’s Dobbins Tech High. Smith also arrived as top recruit after earning Miss Georgia Basketball her senior year at Baldwin High in Milledgeville.
The two came in with very different personalities, Ryan recalled. Staley was someone hesitant to talk to adults she didn’t know while Smith viewed everyone as a longtime friend, eager to talk about any subject.
On the court, there was no question who was in charge. Staley’s talent and passion pushed all her teammates, including Smith, to championship heights.
“She was the catalyst to it all,” Smith said.
Not that it was always smooth sailing. Smith acknowledged she was a player with “rock” hands and Staley’s crisp, hard passes would bounce off too often for the point guard’s liking.
“Look, ‘Big A,’ I’m going to pass it to you one more time. You’d better catch it,’” Smith said Staley told her frequently in practices and games. “So, I was like, ‘All right, I’d better catch it.’ That pretty much happened every game.”
Smith appreciated Staley’s efforts to help get to know South Carolina’s prep scene since arriving.
Ryan has taken pride in both players’ post-college success.
The former Virginia coach figured Staley a basketball lifer and is gratified by her transition to one of the game’s most successful coaches.
Ryan was less sure Smith would want to become a coach, but was pleased as how strongly she dove in when given the assistant’s job at Virginia.
“She became my right hand,” Ryan said.
Smith was touched when Staley mentioned her during the Hall-of-Fame induction speech in September.