Josh Kendall

Dawn Staley makes USC unique, but Huskies still the standard

A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart hug after Monday night's game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and Conneticut Huskies.
A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart hug after Monday night's game between the South Carolina Gamecocks and Conneticut Huskies.

There is no shame in not being UConn.

Which is good because South Carolina is not.

The top-ranked Huskies proved that again Monday night, dismissing their most recent challenger 66-54 at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks are now 0-4 all-time against UConn, and on Monday night they looked more likely to be 0-5 than 1-4 after the next meeting, whenever that will be (hint: it will be in the spring).

South Carolina is ranked No. 2 in the nation and was 22-0 coming into the game, but still was overmatched by the Huskies. UConn is the three-time defending national champion, is now 23-0 and takes a sadist’s glee in proving night in and night out that they have no peer in the sport.

So, that’s what the Gamecocks are not yet.

It’s more interesting, though, to consider what they are, which is an elite basketball team that is coached by a formerly elite player. And it’s interesting that South Carolina employed two of that rare species at the same time until very recently.

“It’s very unusual,” said the other one.

Steve Spurrier was among the 18,000 fans that filled Colonial Life on Monday night. (The governor was another.) South Carolina’s former football coach won the 1966 Heisman Trophy, and also will go down as one of college football’s greatest coaches after leading Florida to the 1996 national title and the Gamecocks to their best era in history.

“There are very few college coaches who were All-America type college players,” Spurrier said.

He searched his brain and came up with Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald as his only example.

“Other than him, gosh there’s got to be one somewhere, I don’t know where though,” Spurrier said.

There aren’t many in any sport. Maybe it’s because great players have trouble teaching things that came naturally to them. Maybe it’s because great players in many sports retire with a big enough bank account that there’s no need to coach.

Whatever the reason, Staley stands out.

Spurrier followed his star turn as a player in college with a long NFL career spent mostly as a backup. That might have helped him internalize some lessons and insights that helped him become a better coach, he theorized.

Staley never had that “advantage.” She was the two-time national player of the year at Virginia, a star in the ABL and WNBA and a three-time Olympian.

“From 1980 until now, Dawn Staley is one of the five best point guards that ever played,” said longtime Georgia women’s basketball coach Andy Landers, who is now retired and attended Monday’s game. “There wasn’t anything that she didn’t do. I think for an elite player, a really great player to be successful as a coach, they have to understand who they were and why they were the way they were, and then they have to put that on a shelf. Put it on a shelf.”

There’s no use comparing any of the current Gamecocks or any of these current Huskies (OK, except maybe Breanna Stewart, who scored 25 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked five shots) to Staley, Landers suggested.

“Dawn Staley will be very fortunate if she coaches 25 years to ever have a point guard who saw it, understood it and felt it like she did,” he said.

However, because of the status of women’s basketball during Staley’s heyday, she was a star without getting star treatment.

“That is different from what the great players of today’s era go through,” Landers said. “In the late ’80s and early ‘90s, we were still in vans going to games. There is a different level of appreciation. Dawn came from Philly. It’s tough in Philly. She learned to be tough. She is tough.”

That came in handy Monday night because UConn roughed her up. The Huskies were up by 10 at the half and by 21 going into the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks never led. They never threatened.

“The thing that separates (Staley) and the thing that has her in this situation tonight – she’s a competitor,” Landers said at halftime. “There’s a lot of good players. There’s a lot of kids that can dribble, pass and shoot, but they don’t like to compete. She likes it when it’s tough. She likes it hard. She knows that winning when things are difficult, that’s where the gold is.”

That will help as Staley continues trying to dethrone King Husky.

Great coaches “kind of hate losing,” Spurrier said. “I’ll tell you Dawn Staley hates losing.”

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