David Cloninger

Staley finally gets her trophy

Dawn Staley wouldn’t let that NCAA plaque out of her sight.

You wouldn’t either if you’d been waiting your whole life to get it.

Staley added the one missing piece to her trophy case Sunday as South Carolina won the national championship with a 67-55 victory over Mississippi State. She has Coach of the Year awards, she has Olympic gold medals … none meant so much as the bauble she had fallen short of four times before Sunday.

“It means that I can check off one of those things that has been a void in my career,” Staley said, net around her neck and new ballcap on her head. “Something I’ve wanted to do because it’s one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger – national championship games and Olympics. Those are the things I wanted.”

She played for it three times at Virginia. She’d coached for it once at USC before Sunday. Staley knew she had the players to get it, but also knew how tough it was to win.

It seems fitting that this was the team to do it. Down to 10 players from an already-thin bench, the Gamecocks blazed through their first four games before outlasting Stanford in Dallas. Then they saw Connecticut lose to Mississippi State and knew that this was going to be the best chance they were ever going to get.

A big lead became small, but then swelled again in the fourth quarter as tournament Most Outstanding Player A’ja Wilson took over. Staley told the Hopkins homegrown she’d have a chance to win the title if she came to USC; Sunday, she became a prophet.

It was vintage Staley as she took the podium. It wasn’t about her, it was about God and then the players that came before this team, including Temple. There were so many on the dais with her afterward – Elem and Sancheon and Ieasia and Khadijah and Tina and Brett – that it was hard to separate past from present.

Then again, that’s what has made this ride so thrilling. It wasn’t just how the wins kept piling up. It was how Staley made every person that joined in feel like they were family.

That’s why the fans made Colonial Life Arena the most-attended women’s arena in the country the past three years. That’s why so many stayed in the aftermath Sunday, in all that confetti and noise, because they knew Staley hug them at some point.

The trophy didn’t stray far from her touch, even as it made the rounds for individual pictures. It really is such a simple prize – wood, a piece of glass, a nice gold disc on top – but it means so much more to Staley.

Not having that title represented the only time she’d ever failed on a basketball court. She was good enough to win Final Four MOP off a losing team, and that was no consolation since she and her Wahoo teammates didn’t bring home a championship.

Staley related a gift from Carolyn Peck, who won a title at Purdue. Peck gave her a piece of her championship net, telling her to return it when she won.

Now she can.

“Had it in my wallet for years,” Staley said. “I’m going to have to pass a piece of my net onto somebody else so they can share and hopefully accomplish something as big as this.”

That trophy will have a front-row seat on the plane home, and I’m sure in Staley’s hands during the championship parade this week. “She says she’s sleeping with it, so maybe next year, she’ll let it go,” cracked Wilson.

She has no plans to, unless it’s to grab another one.

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