Dawn Staley immediately recognized Monday what a tremendous accomplishment it was for her South Carolina women’s basketball team to earn a No. 1 national seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
She also knows that when her team tips off Sunday in Seattle against Cal State Northridge in the tournament’s opening round, that seeding will not carry an ounce of weight.
Staley knows. She has been there before, as an All-America player at Virginia.
“That’s hard because they’re kids. They’re 18- to 22-year-olds. They love being in the spotlight,” Staley says of attempting to bring her team back to the reality of playing as a No. 1 seed rather than being just a high national seed.
“I’ve been a No. 1 seed before as a player and have been to the Final Four, and have come up short in getting a national championship,” Staley says. “So, I’ll draw on my experiences as a player.”
Staley’s Virginia teams reached the Final Four consecutive seasons from 1990 through 1992, the latter two tournaments as No. 1 seeds. The ’91 Cavaliers lost to Tennessee in the national championship game.
Staley said that first Final Four team was simply happy to be there. The next two times, the journey was more like putting on an old shoe. For a USC program that never has advanced past the NCAA Elite Eight – that was 2002 – learning to play like champions means having mental toughness, according to Staley.
“The stronger you are mentally, the better off you’re going to play in the NCAA tournament,” she says.
Staley played on several USA Basketball teams under long-time Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whom Staley considers her mentor in the coaching business. VanDerveer relayed a message once to Staley that said “mental is to physical as four is to one.”
It stuck with Staley.
“Especially in this type of environment, where the team that can take a hit, maybe two, throughout the course of a game and stay poised and composed,” Staley says. “That is a team that can probably win the whole thing.”
With that in mind, Staley began working on her team’s mental state following a semifinal loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament in Atlanta. When the team reconvened this past Friday, Staley sensed something amiss. Perhaps it was the short break after the league tournament. Or maybe it was the club collectively hanging its head over losing two of its previous three games following a 26-2 start.
Whatever the reason, Staley believed the team needed a jolt. So, she began plotting to work on her club’s mental state for the NCAA tournament.
Upon the conclusion of Friday’s practice, Staley told her team to return Saturday at 10 a.m. and perform a skit. The team was divided by class, and the coaches, as well as the support staff, were ordered to prepare the same three-minute skit.
Friday night, Staley received a cell phone call from junior forward Aleighsa Welch, whose class requested a 24-hour extension on the skit deadline.
“No,” Staley says she told Welch. “We’re going to do this. You guys are going to do this. You have to relate it to a basketball game situation. We’re going to play in the NCAA tournament. You’re going to play under pressure. You’ve got to perform.”
The coaching staff performed to the rap lyrics of sophomore guard Tina Roy, whose pregame song is played on the public address system during USC introductions before home games at Colonial Life Arena. The sophomore class conducted a skit that brought out the qualities necessary to join their sorority, from sacrificing to no partying.
Staley was thrilled by the performances, which she says brought the team closer together and helped build mental tenacity. Performing in front of peers can sometimes be more difficult than displaying talent on a basketball floor.
Staley is certain to continue performing mental gymnastics with a youthful team that counts nine NCAA tournament experiences on its roster.
“Our players are extremely happy, but I’m not really sure they understand what it means,” Staley says of being a No. 1 seed. “It means that we’re one of the top teams in the country, but I don’t know if I want it to soak in like that. I want our kids to play loose, and play to win basketball games and not play to lose.”
Winning the national championship, not just being a No. 1 seed, is the ultimate goal. Staley says she knows how to prepare her team mentally to meet that challenge. That process already has begun.