Welcome, Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks. In a sold out arena that seemed full of Mississippi State fans, the Gamecocks coaxed out a lead, then steadfastly beat back every run the Bulldogs made. In the end, MOP A’ja Wilson took over the game on both ends and sealed USC’s first NCAA Women’s Basketball championship.
It turns out there was a team here that Mississippi State couldn’t beat.
Not in January in the regular season. Not in March in the SEC tournament. Not in any of the 10 most recent meetings prior to Sunday. And not in the national championship game, either.
It doesn’t seem that South Carolina has much left to prove on that count. Nor on this court.
A’ja Wilson is, as teammate and roommate Allisha Gray put it, “a celebrity” in Columbia, South Carolina.
The Gamecocks center sticks out not only because she is 6-foot-5 but also because she is a local girl playing for her hometown university as one of the most prominent, heralded female athletes in the country.
That scenario comes with its perks: the built-in support system, dinners at home with family, a lot of friendly faces, and words of encouragement and advice.
“Everybody in the grocery store is a basketball coach,” Wilson said.
In the final seconds on Sunday, Dawn Staley gave a group hug to her assistant coaches. As confetti showered South Carolina’s first women’s basketball title winners, she put on a championship cap she had waited a career to wear.
Later, she wore a net like a necklace.
The 67-55 win over Mississippi State, a fellow member of the Southeastern Conference, was a victory that represented a diversity of opportunity, both for coaches and for teams playing for a championship.
“It feels great. You want to visualize it. You’re so close. I was anxious waiting all day to get to this moment,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s still unbelievable. I don’t know how to celebrate. I don’t know how to act. I don’t know what a national champion is supposed to look like. I know it feels incredible.”
The State: Staley finally gets her trophy
Once the final buzzer sounded, Staley grabbed the trophy and paraded it around the court high over her head.
“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.”
Richard at Sports Illustrated: Home cooking: South Carolina’s own A’ja Wilson leads Gamecocks to first championship
There is no bigger advocate for the state of South Carolina than Gamecocks junior center A’ja Wilson. She grew up in Hopkins, S.C., a 20-minute drive from the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia and a town Wilson described as “chill, with a bunch of woods, and nice and quiet.” Anytime over the weekend when Wilson was asked why she stayed home to play basketball, you might as well have been talking to a member of the state’s tourism division. She could not hype the state of South Carolina enough.
Denied a title in three straight trips to the Final Four (1990-92) as a collegian with Virginia, two in heartbreaking rejections, Staley was able to realize the culmination of a nine-year construction project, having built the Gamecocks (33-4) from the ground up after leaving Temple in 2008.
“I can check off the box because it’s something I wanted to do in my career,” Staley said afterward. “Opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger – national championship games and Olympics. Those were the things I held near and dear to me when I was growing up because that’s what I saw, that’s what I was shooting for, and when I couldn’t get it done in college, I thought that was it, because I never wanted to be sitting where I’m sitting.”
Philly’s Bob Vetrone, Jr tweeted out a great “Throw Back Sunday Special” on coach Dawn in High School.
Sue Favor: Staley’s success has been paved by growth
“She’s hilarious – they love her,” said associate head coach Lisa Boyer after the team’s National Championship win Sunday. “Even in the huddle today they were messing with her. She dances with them, she hangs out with them. She can get on their level.”
But expressing that side of herself with her players was something Staley had to learn. Doing so helped pave the way for the program’s first national title.
In the end, when Dawn Staley won the right to coach A’ja Wilson three years ago, she set into motion the process that led to Sunday night’s 67-55 win over Mississippi State to win the Gamecocks their first national title.
In Bianca Cuevas-Moore, the Gamecocks possessed a junior capable of bodying up Morgan William, denying her the space to operate and keeping her from controlling the offensive flow as she had against both Connecticut and Baylor over the past two games. The Bronx is very present in her game, not to mention her appraisal of it as she reflected upon a championship in the locker room: “I mean, we just played hard. I’m a great defender, and we wanted to make it hard for them.” She did, making William a relative non-factor.
Speaking of the MIA William, from Mechelle: Morgan William on sitting late in NCAA final: I wasn’t bringing enough energy
Guard Morgan William sat in the Mississippi State locker room hunched over in a chair Sunday night. Her fingers kept pinching at her legs, as if she were trying to wake herself from a bad dream.
This is how it goes sometimes in the NCAA tournament. You have the biggest moment of your playing career one night, and less than 48 hours later you feel crushed. What usually doesn’t happen, though, is that a player who was the star in two consecutive victories over No. 1 seeds — whose jump shot ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak — sits on the bench for the fourth quarter of the national championship game.
Fort Worth Star Telegram: South Carolina denies Mississippi State, reigns in women’s basketball for first time
The Reflector: Bulldogs drop National Championship to Gamecocks
We were up 7-3 at the beginning,” Dillingham said. “They made a run and then we weren’t executing offensively.”
Mississippi State had trouble establishing an offensive presence, costing them to be behind 10 points entering the second half. Besides not scoring until two minutes into the game, Mississippi State had trouble defending South Carolina’s flowing offense. In the second quarter alone, Mississippi State was 4-11 from the floor. Dillingham agreed that the team’s usual grace on offense was absent early after the 7-3 start in the game.
“There’s no way to really put it,” Dillingham said. “We weren’t putting the ball in the basket and we weren’t getting stops which isn’t a good recipe.”
There will be time to ask questions about how the Mississippi State Women’s basketball team played in the National Championship game. There will be time to ask questions about some of the coaching decisions Vic Schaefer made.
Tonight is not that time.
From a fan who paid little attention to the Women’s Basketball team before the arrival of Vic Schaefer, I think I can speak for all who are similar. You made us love you.
Winning is the best medicine: After NCAA snub, Michigan feels a sense of redemption with WNIT championship
The ball went into the air, a split second passed and a whistle blew.
Kim Barnes Arico could not watch.
Michigan’s head women’s basketball coach has been through plenty this season. And now, her team was on the verge of losing the WNIT title via two foul shots with less than a second to play.
Maybe it was luck, maybe it was something else. Maybe it was redemption. But those free throws rimmed off. And three overtimes later, Michigan walked out of Calihan Hall in Detroit with a trophy, a net and some pretty strong redemption after winning the WNIT title.