DALLAS — Dawn Staley is going to savor her first NCAA championship. It took her a long time to finally be able to raise the trophy over her head.
A’ja Wilson scored 23 points to help coach Staley and South Carolina win its first national championship with a 67-55 victory over Mississippi State on Sunday night.
Staley made the Final Four three times as a player at Virginia but never won. She also led the Gamecocks to the national semifinals two years ago before losing to Notre Dame.
“It means that I can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career,” said Staley wearing the championship net around her neck in the postgame press conference. “Something I wanted to do. It was one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger — national championship games and Olympics. Those were things that I held dear and near to me growing up. Those were the things I saw and were shooting for.”
Wilson, a native South Carolina player who was Staley’s biggest recruit ever, was the key. She was thrilled to help Staley get her first title.
“I can’t put into words how much it meant to win the game for coach,” Wilson said. “She’s put in so much time and sweat into this. ... It really means something special to bring this back home for such a great person like coach Staley.”
Once the final buzzer sounded, Staley had a long group hug with her coaching staff and then grabbed the trophy and paraded it around the court high over her head. She cut down the final piece of the net, waving it to the huge throng of Gamecocks fans while Wilson and Kaela Davis danced with the South Carolina band playing.
“You have to give tribute to the former players,” Staley said. “Go back to my Temple days, they believed in our vision. We took that vision to South Carolina and that vision was we’ll be national champions. If you stick with us and if you’re disciplined, if you believe all these players believed in that. Happy our words came true to them.”
Staley became just the second African-American coach to win a national championship. She joined Carolyn Peck, who won a title at Purdue.
Mississippi State had all the momentum on its side after a shocking win over UConn on Friday night that ended the Huskies’ record 111-game winning streak. The Bulldogs couldn’t muster the same effort against the Gamecocks. Morgan William, who had become the face of the tournament with the game-winner against the Huskies after a 41-point performance against Baylor, was held to just 8 points.
South Carolina (33-4) turned a 10-point halftime lead into a 45-31 advantage midway through the third quarter before the Bulldogs rallied. Mississippi State (34-5) slowly cut into its deficit, getting with 54-50 on Jazzmun Holmes’ jumper. That brought a huge cheer from the thousands of Mississippi State fans who made the 8-hour trip from Starkville, Mississippi.
But that’s as close as the Bulldogs could get.
The victory in front of a sellout crowd came one day after the Gamecocks men’s basketball team lost in the Final Four in Phoenix.
Wilson, who grew up in South Carolina, blocked a shot on one end of the court and then hit a short jumper in the lane that started a 12-2 run to put the game away. Staley emptied her bench with less than a minute left and Wilson left with tears of joy. The junior center sees a repeat in the future for the Gamecocks, who return most of their core players.
“Man, just be with us next year, we’re trying to be in this same spot next year, we’re going to see how it goes,” Wilson said after winning the most outstanding player award for the Final Four.
The Gamecocks won the title without star center Alaina Coates, who hurt her ankle in the SEC Tournament. She didn’t even travel with the team to Dallas.
“Our players never fretted, ‘La’ we got you a ring. We got you a ring,” Staley said of Coates. “Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis they all believed in it. They spent a year getting to know our team, getting to know our system. Got the opportunity to play and we become national champions. It’s incredible belief and discipline and can’t thank them enough for choosing South Carolina.”
It was the third loss for the Bulldogs against the Gamecocks this season. Mississippi State dropped a game in South Carolina in the regular season as well as the SEC Tournament title game.
“Today doesn’t define us,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, who is 0-9 in his career against South Carolina. “It certainly doesn’t define this team or this season. We had a heck of a year. Obviously we’ve had some hard times dealing with them. Today was no different.”
No team had a tougher road to the championship then the second-seeded Bulldogs. They were trying to become the third team in NCAA history to beat three number No. 1 seeds en route to the title. Tennessee did it in 1987 and Louisiana Tech accomplished the same feat a year later. The Bulldogs had already knocked off top-seed Baylor and UConn to get to the championship game.
This was the sixth time in NCAA Tournament history that teams from the same conference played for the national championship, including three by the SEC. Tennessee won both of those matchups, the last coming in 1996 when the Lady Vols beat Georgia.