The hug represented seven years of fighting.
Dawn Staley knew she could win at South Carolina. Despite the early howls from outsiders questioning why she was being paid so much money to coach a supposed lost cause, despite the early defection of a program-changing recruit, she never stopped believing.
The first 10-win season begat another losing season, but the third was a WNIT year and the fourth was the breakthrough. The group of seniors who had stayed through all of the losing had calmed Staley a bit, and the new combination produced 25 wins and an NCAA tournament appearance.
The recruiting cycle centered on Columbia as Staley convinced local stars to keep building the program, and they enthusiastically signed on. Another 25-win season was notched, and then 29 wins and an SEC championship.
The top recruit in America, A’ja Wilson, pledged her support to the Gamecocks and USC was poised to take its place among the elite. Ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks during the season, USC won another SEC title, claimed the SEC tournament championship and headed to the NCAAs, where it easily won its first two games before knocking off nemesis North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
That set up a match with Florida State, a see-saw affair that wasn’t over until Khadijah Sessions stole the ball and laid it in at the buzzer. Seeing her goal at last delivered, Staley turned to her bench, calling the assistant coaches that had toiled with her for a group embrace.
The Gamecocks, after seven years of never giving up, were headed to the Final Four.