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Mike Lopresti | | December 15, 2021

From college to WNBA, Olympics to coaching: The paths of Dawn Staley and Kara Lawson

Dawn Staley builds her ultimate Gamecock Dream player

Begin with their similarities.

Two women who became icons as college players, All-Stars as professionals and gold medalists as Olympians.

Two strong voices who are determined to expand the horizon for women’s coaches in general, and Black female coaches in particular.

Two coaches at marquee programs located 235 miles apart, leading two of the last 10 unbeaten teams in Division I.

Two pedal-to-the-floor competitors, who will be trying to win the same game Wednesday night. Duke and South Carolina have had a number of past meetings, but this represents the first crossed paths between Kara Lawson and Dawn Staley. Once upon a time, they could have put on a grand game of one-on-one themselves, having scored 4,085 points and gone to six Final Fours between them as collegians.

On the home bench in Cameron Indoor Stadium will be 8-0 Duke and Lawson. Top-10 teams are 66-2 against unranked opponents this season, and one of those two defeats was handed to Iowa, courtesy of Duke — by 15 points. Now the Blue Devils are ranked themselves, at No. 15.

POWER 10: Tennessee crashes, Iowa falls out of this week's Power 10

On the visiting bench will be South Carolina and Staley. As in No. 1 South Carolina. As in 10-0 South Carolina. As in already-beaten-four-top-10 teams South Carolina.

Separated by 11 years in age, the two women traveled different paths to get to this meeting.

Staley built her college legend in the state of Virginia. Lawson was born there.

Staley came close to winning the national championship as a player for Virginia, and did it as a coach for South Carolina. She was Most Outstanding Player in the 1991 Final Four and the Cavaliers didn’t even win the title. She’s the only player — male or female — to do that in the past 36 tournaments.

Lawson came close to winning a national championship as a player for Tennessee, and is just beginning as a coach for Duke. This is her second season. First true season, really. Last year, while Staley and South Carolina were building toward a trip to the Final Four, Lawson was having to shut down her first Duke team for the season because of COVID. The Blue Devils only got in four games and won three. The Gamecocks won 26.

The Kara era continues in Durham with winning on the mind

Staley started her coaching career before she was even finished as a player in the WNBA. She craved challenges, so why not do both? Sounds difficult, but her first team was Temple in 2000-01, and the Owls went 19-11. That was Lawson’s sophomore season at Tennessee.

Lawson didn’t start her college coaching until 2020. Before then, she had been a highly successful TV commentator and an assistant with the Boston Celtics. The same night in 2020 that Lawson won her first game as coach, Staley won her 478th.

Staley coached the USA women’s team to an Olympic gold medal last summer in Tokyo. Lawson coached the 3X3 team to a gold medal at the same Games. Together, the two women have been part of 31 gold medals for USA Basketball in international competition.

WATCH 👀: Lorela Cubaj on Georgia Tech snapping UConn's winning streak against unranked opponents 

Lawson is just starting to get to know what her team can do. Iowa is the only other ranked opponent the Blue Devils have faced. But Duke is determined and deep, outscoring opponents in bench points by an average of 36.3-9.4. The women also team with the men to be one of only four schools in the nation ranked in the top 15 in both.

Staley has sent her team through a scheduling minefield. Duke will be the fifth ranked opponent for the Gamecocks. Using the latest Associated Press poll there are nine more after that, starting with No. 2 Stanford next Tuesday. By that night, South Carolina will have averaged playing a ranked opponent once every 7.2 days since the season began. Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, Kentucky, a rematch with Connecticut — they’re all still out there for the Gamecocks.

“I think we can handle anything,” guard Zia Cooke said the other day, and apparently the South Carolina schedule will test that theory.

The task for Lawson and her team is a whopper. Some of the Gamecocks’ handiwork against its parade of big names has been stunning.

There was the 61-34 rebounding slam and 15 blocked shots against Maryland, the 16-3 fourth quarter surge past Connecticut, the 12 steals against Oregon, going wire to wire with the lead at North Carolina State.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Tennessee women's basketball team is the Team of the Week after long-awaited return to top 10 

South Carolina has a staggering 18.8 rebound margin, and a serious habit of blocking shots. For every two attempts that actually go in for opponents, one gets swatted.

Duke is averaging 80.8 points a game. South Carolina is allowing only 50.6. Something will have to give. It will be a feat for either team to win, but then, here are two women who understand the concept of accomplishment.

Staley, with her retired uniform, her Hall of Fame induction, the two streets named after her in her present home of Columbia and her birthplace Philadelphia, her invitation to deliver the valedictory address at Virginia.

Lawson, with her groundbreaking work as a broadcaster, her invitation to join the Board of Trustees for the University of Tennessee, her historic hiring by the Celtics.
And there’s this: In 2013 while playing for the Connecticut Sun, Kara Lawson won the WNBA’s Community Leadership Award. It’s named after Dawn Staley.

Wednesday night, she’ll be trying to beat her.

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