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Jessica Hunt | | April 3, 2017

Staley's ascent is dawn of a new era in women's basketball

  South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley helped her school win its first national title on Sunday.

DALLAS — In case you needed any more proof, South Carolina’s 67-55 win over Mississippi State in the NCAA championship game further solidifies South Carolina coach Dawn Staley as the face of women’s basketball. Named the head coach of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team through 2020, Staley’s contributions to the sport transcend her Gamecocks’ national championship run.

Staley had been a part of five of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team’s six consecutive gold medals – as a player in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and twice as an assistant coach in 2008 and 2016. In 2004, Staley was selected to carry the United States flag into the opening ceremony of the Athens Games, leading Team USA’s delegation.

  South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates with the championship trophy after Sunday's win.
As a player at Virginia, Staley participated in three Final Fours, and in eight years in the WNBA, she was a five-time All-Star selection.

Stanford women’s basketball coach, Tara VanDerveer, coached Staley on the 1995-96 gold medal-winning national team that finished with a perfect 60-0 record.

“I think she’s just a great role model for the young women coming up,” VanDerveer said.

“I mean, she’s carried our country’s flag. She’s everything you could look for in a coach and a friend. It’s just a great story. I just want her to keep it going.”

Women's Basketball: South Carolina captures 1st National Championship
Staley complied a 33-4 record with the Gamecocks this season. Her accomplishments there include two Final Fours and 25-win seasons the last six years. She has also coached USA Basketball at the junior level, and USA teams are 21-0 with Staley at the helm. For her, the culture of USA basketball – of working as a team for a common goal – is what she tries to replicate in every locker room she oversees.

“We work together at South Carolina for this common goal of winning this national championship,” Staley said. “And the way you do that is you try to do it the right way, and sometimes there are bumps along the road and things don’t work out the way you want them to work out. But you look back on the culture of excellence of a USA Basketball system and you just try to use that as an imprint on this level.”

Staley acknowledges that basketball “has been an incredible gift that keeps on giving.”

“I don’t know why, but I do work hard at this,” Staley said. “I do. It is my passion. It is my livelihood. You know, it is something that brings me a great deal of joy. It brings also challenges as well. It keeps me engaged. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to coach USA Basketball for so many years. It is what keeps me coming back.”

RELATED: South Carolina tops Mississippi State for first national championship 

Junior guard Kaela Davis recorded 10 points in the Gamecocks’ championship win. She is not surprised by her coach’s selection as head coach of the national team because of her work ethic and drive.

“I think she was built for that,” Davis said. “She works so hard. As you heard her say up on the stage, she’s put basketball over a lot of things. I think it’s for moments like this. I think she envisioned winning a national championship and doing a lot of amazing things that even she has in just this month.”

  South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates with her players after Sunday's win in the title game.
Davis and teammates Allisha Gray and A’Ja Wilson all note Staley’s ability to connect with her players is just one of many factors behind the success of her teams. Wilson – the Final Four Most Outstanding Player – sees Staley’s work ethic as the driving force behind her arrival as one of the new faces of women’s basketball.

“I think it suits her well,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a nice title for her. She deserves it – she’s worked really hard for everything that she’s done. Coach really doesn’t like the easy road to anything. Whether it’s there or not, she’s going to take the hard road and compete the hardest and give it her all. And I think that title really does fit her.”

After tonight’s championship game, Staley remarked that the first and only other African-American female coach to win a national championship, Carolyn Peck, gave her a piece of the net from her 1999 win. Staley has carried it in her wallet and will now return it. And like Peck before her, she plans to pass along a piece of her championship net to inspire another coach.

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