David Cloninger

Loss of star player opened door for Staley to lighten up

Dawn Staley stared down the assembled media, her returning team behind her, and told all of us that yes, it hurt, but her program never had been and never would be defined by one player. South Carolina’s a team, not an individual.

If individuals can’t be happy with the Gamecocks, she said, then best of luck to them and she’ll ride with the ones who want to be here.

That was April 2010. Kelsey Bone, one of the most ballyhooed recruits in USC athletics history, announced she was transferring after being named AP SEC Newcomer of the Year. It was an immense loss and the familiar grumblings were being re-heard – Staley was being paid an awful lot of money for two consecutive losing seasons, and now she couldn’t hold on to program-changing players.

All she had to do was put out a statement wishing Bone well and not speak about it ever again. Instead, she welcomed the media at the practice gym, and her entire team stood behind her, defiant and committed to each other.

 

I’ve thought about that afternoon a lot this week. It’s become sort of a tradition between Staley and myself, where after every last game of the season, I thank her for what she’s done for USC and then say, “Been a long time since we were sitting here discussing 10-win seasons, isn’t it?”

I said it again Sunday, and she agreed. Her smile was a lot bigger than usual, as it should have been – we were both covered in confetti and she was toting the national championship trophy she’d waited nearly 30 years to get her hands on.

The Gamecocks’ greatest moment started with that great opportunity seven years ago. Losing Bone was five steps back from the step forward they’d taken that season, but Staley, tougher than kudzu on a telephone pole, refused to let it define her team.

That next squad posted a winning record and reached the second round of the WNIT. They probably would have reached the NCAA Tournament had leading scorer Valerie Nainima not blown out a knee over the summer. They did it when one of the team’s best players, a point guard who Staley saw so much of herself in, decided to stay put and lead instead of taking the easy way out.

La’Keisha Sutton didn’t like the way her career was going and she wanted to get out, finding a spot closer to her native New Jersey. But she sucked it up, re-committed and led that 2010-11 squad, on the floor and off it, when she frankly told Staley she needed to lighten up.

Staley listened and as she described, quit yelling and started coaching. That produced a winning season, then the breakthrough in 2011-12.

The Five Fighters – Sutton, Markeisha Grant, Courtney Newton, Charenee Stephens and Ebony Wilson – were the seniors of a 25-win team that had the best SEC season in a decade and reached the Sweet 16. A freshman on that team, Aleighsa Welch, was Staley’s first homegrown recruit and would inherit the leadership mantle from Sutton.

We all know what happened after – more wins, more tournaments, more recruits. Tiffany Mitchell arrived the next season along with Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier, then Alaina Coates, then A’ja Wilson.

They got Wilson, and I told my superiors at The State, “We need to increase our women’s coverage. This team’s good.” They said, “How good?”

Me: “Final Four good.”

That happened in 2015, and I thought they missed a really great chance, and another really great chance disappeared in 2016 in Sioux Falls. But it all came through in 2017.

As soon as UConn fell, I turned to my friends and said, “Ballgame. Ain’t no way they lose to Mississippi State.” Not disrespecting MSU, because it is a phenomenal team, but it wasn’t going to bring a reputation like UConn’s into the title match.

The moment in 2010 hit me as I watched Staley embrace her assistant coaches on Sunday. She said it that day – we’re going to be all right.

They certainly are.

Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState

Staley Year-by-Year

Year

School

Record

Conf.

Conf. Finish

Postseason

2000-01

Temple

19-11

11-5

3rd East

WNIT 1st round

2001-02

Temple

20-11

12-4

T1st East

NCAA 1st Round

2002-03

Temple

14-15

9-7

2nd East

2003-04

Temple

21-10

14-2

1st East

NCAA 1st Round

2004-05

Temple

28-4

16-0

1st East

NCAA 2nd Round

2005-06

Temple

24-8

12-4

3rd

NCAA 1st Round

2006-07

Temple

25-8

13-1

2nd

NCAA 2nd Round

2007-08

Temple

21-13

12-2

T-1st

NCAA 1st Round

2008-09

USC

10-18

2-12

11th

2009-10

USC

14-15

7-9

T-7th

2010-11

USC

18-15

8-8

T-5th

WNIT 2nd Round

2011-12

USC

25-10

10-6

T-4th

NCAA Sweet 16

2012-13

USC

25-8

11-5

T-4th

NCAA 2nd Round

2013-14

USC

29-5

14-2

1st

NCAA Sweet 16

2014-15

USC

34-3

15-1

T-1st

NCAA Final Four

2015-16

USC

33-2

16-0

1st

NCAA Sweet 16

2016-17

USC

33-4

14-2

1st

National Champions

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