David Cloninger

Dawn Staley’s SEC reign like no other

Guess she didn’t forget how to coach after all.

You should have read my mentions after South Carolina committed the heinous crime of losing to Connecticut (which won its 100th straight game that night) and then somehow fell by two points on the road to a red-hot Missouri team. Most of it was how Dawn Staley’s a great recruiter and a terrible Xs-and-Os coach, and how the Gamecocks were never going to be a national champion.

I’m sure Staley saw some of it – she even mentioned after the UConn loss how folks should stick to being fans and not coaches, since they only see what happens during the game. I’ll leave it at that, except to say being a coach/mentor/mother to 12 mostly teenage women isn’t a walk in the park.

Not that she ever had anything to prove to people who questioned her, but she shut them up anyway. Here Staley sits, once again atop the SEC mountain with her fourth straight regular-season championship, and did it by making two key moves with the Gamecocks’ backs to the wall.

They needed some help and got it, when Kentucky beat Mississippi State. But USC wasn’t in great shape to take advantage of it, playing in the toughest road environment in the league (Texas A&M) without Alaina Coates (sprained ankle).

Staley started backup point guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore alongside starter Ty Harris, with her usual two guards and forward A’ja Wilson, and Texas A&M never knew what hit it. The Gamecocks’ speed and relentless attack of the interior collared the Aggies and pulled USC back in contention for the championship.

Then against Kentucky on Sunday, with no secrets between the two due to being permanent – and rather bitter – rivals, Staley threw Kaela Davis at Wildcats star Makayla Epps. In a 12-point victory in Lexington on Feb. 2 that was much further apart than it looked, Allisha Gray locked down Epps the first three quarters. Perhaps expecting it again, Epps found Davis looking at her every play and couldn’t figure her out.

Epps, averaging 17 points per game, scored 10 on 3-of-7 shooting. To Kentucky’s credit, the Wildcats pushed the Gamecocks to the brink but USC wasn’t about to lose when it was given a second title shot. The Gamecocks won, becoming one of just two SEC teams to win at least four straight SEC championships, and finished a 59-5 four-year run through the league.

The last two wins and last championship are all Staley’s coaching. And it’s the best job South Carolina’s seen in its history, covering nearly all of its sports.

A marvelous piece in Sports Illustrated recently summed up the point. We all get too used to winning too quickly. The piece mentioned the Chicago Cubs, lovable losers for a century until finally winning the World Series this year.

That bought them a week’s worth of goodwill before wondering how to repeat it.

It wasn’t going to be easy for Staley this year, although she returned the best frontcourt in the country and added two high-power transfers. She thought she may take some losses since the SEC only got better.

Yet she wasn’t afraid to make drastic changes – sitting junior Cuevas-Moore in favor of the freshman Harris to run her offense – and shift mid-stream. She did it knowing that for the past three years, every other team in the country seethes to knock her and her Gamecocks off their perch.

And nobody – still – can do it. Through all of it, Staley brought home the flag. USC has 15 SEC regular-season championships in its athletic history and Staley’s won four.

The Gamecocks are a dynasty, and one person constructed them. It’s her title and what she does better than anyone who dares question her.


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