It was an “unexpected surprise” for the Gamecocks head coach.
“I didn’t think we ended our season on a great note,” Staley said. “But obviously some people felt that our body of work spoke for itself throughout the season.”
The Gamecocks (27-4) won the Southeastern Conference regular season and rose as high as No. 4 in the country before losing to Tennessee in the regular season finale and Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals. They open the NCAA Tournament against Cal State-Northridge today in Seattle.
That South Carolina has done it all with its young roster that includes only one reserve senior is all the more impressive.
“We have players who have on the job training because they’re so young,” Staley said.
It’s Staley who deserves credit as the architect of the Gamecocks’ revival. She led Temple to six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years before accepting the Gamecocks job in 2008. It was not like she was walking into a program with a wealth of history. South Carolina had reached only one Final Four in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women era in 1980. In 27 years from 1991 until she took the reins, the Gamecocks had reached the NCAA Tournament only twice in 2002-03.
Staley’s first two teams would follow suit with losing records on 10-18 and 14-15. But she’d done enough homework before arriving to have faith this would turn around – stealing a page from the Steve Spurrier recruiting pagebook by locking up the best local recruits. Seven Gamecocks are South Carolina bred including SEC Freshman of the Year Alaina Coates and starters Aleighsa Welch, Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier. SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell hails from 90 minutes up the road in Charlotte.
“From a recruiting standpoint, we did research and found out there was a cluster of young, talented players here in South Carolina,” Staley said. “We just had to be patient and wait until they grew up and at the same time kind of keep them away from the vultures that lurk outside of South Carolina. Fortunately for us we’ve been able to keep the best of the kids at home and built this program on homegrown talent and then be able to recruit outside this area the best kids nationally to come in and mesh with what we already have.”
IT WAS ANOTHER SPURRIER who counseled Staley through the growing pains – Jeri. The football coach’s wife was a shoulder to lean on through two losing seasons.
“I sat back and watched and talked to Jeri Spurrier a lot,” Staley said. “She’s invested just as much as coach Spurrier is on his success and the success of South Carolina football. She kept telling me to be patient. We’ve been exactly where you are.”
In 2011, the Gamecocks were 18-15 and reached the second round of the WNIT. The next year they were 25-10 and made it to the NCAA Sweet 16. Last they went 25-8 and lost in the NCAA second round.
This year’s No. 1 seed is validation for all the hard work. The future, however, looks even brighter with a young squad that will be augmented by the No. 7 overall recruit in center Jatarie White from Charlotte and the possibility of landing the top-ranked prep senior – 6-foot-5 A’Ja Wilson – from nearby Hopkins, S.C.
“It just means that when you do things the right way success will come,” Staley said. “You do have to have some patience about it but certainly it will come.”
Patience has never been Staley’s strong suit. She was an instant collegiate success when she arrived at Virginia, leading the Cavaliers to three Final Fours and one national championship game from 1990-92. She went on to win three gold medals in the Olympics and led the Charlotte Sting to one WNBA Finals.
NONE OF HER CURRENT players were born before Staley graduated college and the oldest was 11 when she retired from playing.
“I don’t think they have a clue as to the type of player I was,” Staley said. “It’s a little stretch for them to remember or even go on the Internet to find some footage. But I think they believe in our process and our vision and I do believe they have an inclination to some of the success I had as a player.”
Her success is what makes Staley a good coach.
“I’m still very much a player at heart and I coach from being a player,” she said. “Players like to stay in rhythm and don’t like to come out if they make one mistake or look over their shoulders to see if someone is coming in for them. So I coach from that mentality.”
Her Gamecocks can fill the missing item on Staley’s résumé.
“I’ve had so many successes in my career as a player and as a coach, but this is the one,” she said of the NCAA title that eluded her as a player. “This is the big void that I’ve been trying to fill for a very long time. It feels great to be a little bit closer to it. For me it would be a tremendous mountain to have climbed. But I know it’s going to take a whole lot of hard work and some luck and our kids being able to stay mentally strong and tough throughout what hopefully will become a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.”
Despite its top seed, South Carolina has no easy road to the Final Four.
It starts in Seattle and hopes to advance to Stanford next week, where the No. 2 seed Cardinal get to play host. It hardly seems like a reward.
Beyond that is a Final Four that is likely to include undefeated women’s Goliaths Connecticut and Notre Dame.
STALEY HAS THE GAMECOCKS inching towards inclusion into that elite sorority.
“You have to take steps to get there,” she said. “I think us getting a No. 1 seed we took a huge step. At this time of season though, I think all the pressure is on UConn and Notre Dame and the high tradition teams who’ve always been there. For us we’re like the new kids on the block. I hope we’re able to play loose and play the type of basketball that got us here and you never know.”
Staley – who signed a lucrative contract extension through 2019 – believes that the embrace from Gamecocks fans will grow as strong as it has become for baseball when Ray Tanner brought home consecutive College World Series titles.
“South Carolina people want to be a part of winning like everybody else,” Staley said. “We’re able to draw almost 13,000 fans for our last home game, that says a lot. That say a lot for where this program has come and where it’s going to go. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to build and have people celebrate with us. If we can somehow bring a national championship to this city it would be tremendous much like what coach Tanner did with the baseball team.”