South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had yet to win against her former Olympic coach and competitor, Tara VanDerveer. Staley’s Gamecocks delivered that long sought-after win Friday night in the first semifinal game of the Final Four, defeating Stanford 62-53.
As VanDerveer had anticipated, Staley’s team would be prepared.
“They worked really hard,” VanDerveer said. “They had a really aggressive second-half plan, came out and really did a much better job in the second half. I mean, Dawn and her staff have done a great job. They have a terrific team.”
Leading up to the game, Staley had thought about her special relationship with VanDerveer – from winning the 1996 US Olympic gold medal in Atlanta to their ongoing communication throughout this season.
“She’s been one of my biggest supporters since I’ve been in coaching. She’s what’s right for women’s basketball,” Staley said. “She wants younger coaches to have success in this league. I can’t thank her enough.”
Staley tells her players that opponents are “nameless and faceless” to keep them from getting overwhelmed by the names on opponents’ jerseys. Like the advice she gives, Staley did not focus on the fact she was playing her former coach and mentor, nor the fact that VanDerveer is the second-winningest coach in women’s college basketball history.
“We just approach it like they’re any other opponent,” Staley said. “But then…they throw up statistics on the television screen, 0-5 coaching against her. You would think at some point the law of averages should play out.”
At halftime, the Cardinal led the Gamecocks 29-20 after South Carolina failed to find a good rhythm offensively, shooting just 25.8 percent. Junior forward A’ja Wilson was double and triple teamed at times, and had tallied four points after two quarters. After the second half, Wilson added nine points and 11 rebounds.
“My teammates really rallied around me,” Wilson said. “Kept positive thoughts into my mind. Coach Staley kept positive thoughts in my mind. I think that kind of helped me overcome just kind of the way the game was going for me.”Wilson says she and her teammates were slightly aware of the significance of Staley playing VanDerveer in the Final Four. But after their first half struggles, Wilson knew she and her teammates needed to come out with more energy for the remaining 20 minutes.
“I think with us it was just honestly just knowing that we were just one game away from our major goal and I think that kinda brought a lot of energy out and coach kind of came to the locker room – she wasn’t really happy and no one wants to see their head coach mad,” Wilson said. “So, you know, we had to just go out and fight for her and compete for her. We dug deep into her hearts and we pulled it out.”
Staley may now be 1-5 against VanDerveer, but the next challenge awaits Sunday as the Gamecocks compete against SEC foe Mississippi State for the team’s, and the coach’s, first shot at a national championship.