David Cloninger

Dawn’s dynasty began growing after defeat

8,000 fans make championship feel like home game for Allisha Gray

Allisha Gray speaks after South Carolina defeated Mississippi State to win their third straight SEC tournament championship.
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Allisha Gray speaks after South Carolina defeated Mississippi State to win their third straight SEC tournament championship.

They’re the best team in the best league and one of the best in the country. The NCAA Tournament will begin in two weeks and you had best believe South Carolina will be mentioned as a favorite to get to the Final Four.

Dawn Staley, even while wearing her brand-new SEC championship ballcap, still thinks about That Moment, before winning seven conference titles in a four-year span was about as far away as Pluto. The success is so, so appreciated – but Staley keeps it where it needs to be.

Which is behind That Moment.

That was when she sat in a cramped locker room in North Little Rock, Ark., moments after a 49-39 SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State. That defeat ended Staley’s first year at South Carolina at 10-18, 2-12 in the SEC.

The result was expected from the outside, because everybody knew Staley didn’t take over a rose garden. She inherited a mess that was made messier when her two best players each suffered mid-year season-ending injuries.

Staley didn’t accept the excuses. She’s a winner, always has been, and she wasn’t winning. Don’t ever agree to the “That’s OK’s” and “We’ll get ’em next year’s,” she thought, because she’s supposed to win now.

It’s that, more than anything else, that has elevated Staley’s program to the top of the SEC.

“I’m driven by those first few years being at South Carolina. It’s a thing that fuels me every single day,” Staley said Sunday after her third straight SEC tournament championship. “They didn’t feel good. Although winning, it does feel good, but you do have to look back on where this program has come from and use those days, you know, to make you continue to work and not go backwards.”

The success of the past four years – and what success, a 59-5 SEC record and a three-year stay in the Top 10 – was a product of always believing it could happen. She had setbacks, losing a top recruit or two, but once that first group of fighters got to the NCAA Tournament, the run began.

A cycle of other top recruits centered around Columbia and Staley cherry-picked her stars. That enabled the Gamecocks to spread their recruiting base and get more top pledges when the in-state well began to dry. When the Gamecocks began to win and win big, Staley never paused to rest on what she’d done, always striving for the next day, the next practice.

This year was an example of not being shackled to one way, Staley changing point guards mid-stream and switching her gameplan to more speed and running downhill. No option was ever ignored if it meant the Gamecocks could win, and Sunday’s game was a glimpse of the future – with no Alaina Coates Sunday or next year, USC showed what it could do without her in the tournament final.

It’s why Staley was proud of her team to win but was already thinking of what begins in two weeks. She wants to win the NCAA tournament, not just get close, and add that bauble she’s been chasing since she came up short three straight years as a player.

Always pursuing. Never looking back. The Gamecocks are 123-14 since 2013-14.

Staley can’t, and won’t, get 10-18 out of her mind.

Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState

The Gamecocks beat Mississippi State to win the SEC Tournament in Greenville.