As happy and as proud as she was, Dawn Staley made sure to point it out after clinching a share of the SEC regular-season championship on Sunday. It wasn’t just for the 2013-14 team, it was for the five that came before it, the foundation-layers and builders who got South Carolina to this point.
While it’s magnificent to see what the No. 4 Gamecocks have become, Staley never has forgotten how hard it was to get here.
“The former ones, the ones who got their heads beat in six years ago, starting the building process,” Staley said. “It feels great to do what most people thought could never get done here at South Carolina.”
It began in that 2008 offseason, when Staley was hired from Temple by Eric Hyman. Vowing to take the Gamecocks to the top, Staley had detractors from the start – some griped that her initial contract was too lucrative for a program that struggled to win as much as it struggled with attendance.
“As much flak as I got for hiring her remember that?,” Hyman said in November. “I talked to one of the radio guys when she started winning, and said, ‘Now you’re praising her, but before, you were ripping her.’”
The first year ended with a 10-18 (2-12 SEC) record that probably everybody but Staley expected. There wasn’t much left in the cupboard that Susan Walvius had tried to stock after the program slipped from back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances to five consecutive years without one.
Staley was starting to see results, though. The Gamecocks won her first SEC game, against Ole Miss, on Jan. 22, 2009, making USC’s record 9-9, 1-4. But leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Demetress Adams left that game with a knee injury that would end her season, forcing most of the scoring burden on senior Brionna Dickerson.
Three days later, Dickerson also suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Gamecocks stumbled to the finish, but Staley saw glimmers of hope. The injuries forced freshman La’Keisha Sutton to grow up, and Staley had mined a diamond on the recruiting trail.
Kelsey Bone, the country’s No. 2 recruit, headlined the country’s fourth-ranked recruiting class, giving an immediate boost to the reclamation project. The following year finished just short of the postseason with USC dropping five of its final six games to finish 14-15, despite a five-game improvement in SEC wins.
Bone was SEC Newcomer of the Year, leading scorer Valerie Nainima was returning and Sutton had had another strong season. Staley’s third season would be the breakthrough.
Fifteen days after being named the best rookie in the league, Bone left the team. Staley’s team stood behind her the day it was announced, pledging that they were confident they could carry on without Bone.
Nainima tore her ACL over the summer and the Gamecocks were minus their top two returning scorers. Yet, USC proved that it was not going to give up. Without Bone, without Nainima (she did return, but wasn’t the lethal scorer of the previous season), the Gamecocks had to lean on others. Sutton, Ashley Bruner, Markeisha Grant, Ieasia Walker, Charenee Stephens, et al. – picked the team up.
The third year finished just short of the NCAA tournament, back-to-back overtime losses in February relegating the Gamecocks to a WNIT bid, and USC won one game before bowing out. The specter of Staley leaving briefly loomed, when Virginia parted with longtime coach Debbie Ryan and Staley was seen as a natural candidate, but talks never got beyond the initial phase.
“I don’t think that we’re going to miss very many years that we’re not in the NCAA tournament,” Staley said then. “It’s a gold mine. I think the foundation’s laid, now it’s time for us to build a house. A big house.”
The fourth year, with Sutton labeling the Gamecocks “The Money Team” and rallying behind her battle cry of “We All We Got, We All We Need,” USC stormed to 21 regular-season wins, 10 in the SEC. The Gamecocks played in the SEC tournament semifinals and were awarded an NCAA berth, where they won two games to get to Staley’s first Sweet 16. That begat another 25-win season a year later, and another NCAA appearance.
Expectations were high for this season, but USC has increased them as it has continued to win. An NCAA tournament berth is assured, and the Gamecocks can clinch their first undisputed SEC regular-season championship Thursday night.
Staley always said that she thought she would win like this sooner. But she wouldn’t trade the journey to get here for anything.
“It’s a great day to be a Gamecock, but certainly, we want to continue to take care of what we can take care of,” Staley said. “If we can get it done (tonight), I think it would be a wonderful thing.
“We want to win it all.”