Dawn Staley had the best seat in the house Friday night at Colonial Life Arena to watch her South Carolina’s women’s basketball team dominate its first round game in the NCAA Tournament.
And she stayed in it most of the night, which is a good sign for the Gamecocks.
“Her animation is usually just getting on somebody’s butt,” junior guard Kaela Davis said. “Tonight was one of those nights she didn’t need to.”
South Carolina dismissed UNC Asheville 90-40, and Staley was calm and quiet throughout, rarely rising from her chair.
“She gets all her yelling out when we’re in the timeouts,” SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson joked. “It is a good thing to see here calm. That means she trusts us.”
The Gamecocks gave her no reason not to. They led 48-22 at halftime and continued to stretch the lead.
Staley left her seat only once before the game’s first media timeout and then only briefly. After giving instruction to a player, she went back to the bench and only rose once more in the quarter, again just for a moment.
When Staley got up for the fourth time during the game, it was with Bianca Cuevas-Moore at the free throw line preparing to make a foul shot that would put South Carolina up 34-17. Staley’s purpose was to tell her team to go to a full-court press, and Cuevas-Moore immediately made a steal and layup. By that time, Staley was back in her seat, chin in her hand, watching with all the emotion a shark feels for its next meal.
She could have been thinking about restaurants in Spain, where she’ll coach the U.S. Women’s National Team in the World Championships next year, or about sushi in Japan, where she will lead Team USA in the Olympic Games.
At a school that not long ago had three legends on the sideline – Staley, a Hall of Famer as a player, with the women’s basketball team, two-time national champion Ray Tanner with the baseball team, and Steve Spurrier with the football team – she is the only icon that remains.
“What if (former Gamecocks athletics director) Eric Hyman had not hired her?” Spurrier wondered recently. “I think she is probably the greatest hire in any sport in South Carolina history. From where they have come from nothing to one of the best in the nation every year is pretty dadgum neat.”
On the other end of the floor, UNC-Asheville coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick could have given her seat to a fan because she never sat in it. Not once. Mock Kirkpatrick exhorted her team from tip to buzzer. Down 10, she was calling every play and verbally walking her team through every step of it. Same with down 20 … and down 30 … and down 40 … and down 50. It got ugly despite all her efforts.
“South Carolina was very focused,” Mock Kirkpatrick said.
That started with Staley.
“She’s really zoned in on, ‘It’s March, this is the tournament,’ ” Davis said.
Despite the final score, the Bulldogs left feeling very good about themselves.
“It was kind of a storybook season,” Mock Kirkpatrick said, “except for the 50-point loss. That’s not storybook.”
Meanwhile, the Stockton Regional’s protagonists, Staley’s Gamecocks, left to prepare for Sunday’s game against Arizona State, hoping they can keep their coach happily in her chair for five more games.