The net-lace wasn’t around her neck, surprising since it had been a constant companion on the Gamecock Club circuit and other media interviews since she cut it off the rim in Dallas. But it wasn’t going to be worn forever – Dawn Staley is very proud of the national championship the Gamecocks claimed in April but eventually, focus had to switch.
It’s not about defending the title this year. It’s about trying to win another one.
Q: How much did winning the national championship add to your normal summer schedule?
A: “It’s tiresome, but it’s a good exhaustion. I wouldn’t mind going on this tour every year. It’s been great. It’s something that we’ve all wanted and also it’s an opportunity for us to share it with everybody that’s had a hand in it. And everybody that cheered and everybody that believed, everybody that saw this happening even when it wasn’t a popular thing to think about, so it’s been an incredible whirlwind.”
Q: You were already talking to recruits across the country. How many more have been added to the potential list after the title?
A: “We’re getting a lot more interest than we normally would at this stage of the game. And quite naturally. It’s been great, it helps our job a little bit better in that we receive calls, a lot of calls, and we don’t have to track people down, because they’re more interested in us. So it’s been helpful. We haven’t got any commitments from it, so I guess that’s the next stage.”
Q: Has it also helped with future scheduling, for national TV games?
A: “People have been really good about that. I think our nationally televised games have been more than anybody in our league. And I don’t think that will stop. I think A’ja Wilson’s senior year, people are going to want to see her. The fact that we’re national champions, people will want to see that, and I think we got a pretty solid team, a team in which we lost a lot, but I think we can fill in the holes with some talented players.”
Q: What’s your immediate schedule as Team USA head coach?
A: “Nothing this summer. I’m trying to watch as many WNBA games as possible, just to check out some players, and then we’ll have a fall training camp, very similar to what took place with the last two Olympics. They kind of work around the WNBA schedule. And they’re also real conscious of our schedule as well, but the fall isn’t a bad time for us to do a training camp.”
Q: Have you filled out your assistant staff for Team USA?
A: “No. They haven’t announced it. They’re still going through the process.”
Q: What’s the next competition for Team USA?
A: “It’s World Cup. It’s the world championships, but they re-named it the World Cup. That’s at the end of September (2018), next fall.”
Q: How different does it feel every morning now that you’re a national champion?
A: “Of course it feels different. A lot of times it is the recruit that’s bringing up the national championship. We don’t really have to self-promote because people have seen it. It’s not something that we shy away from saying it, obviously, because it’s really hard to do. And we’re really proud to have won and really proud to share it with other people. It’s not something that’s not going to come up in conversation. When we have people on campus or if we’re in homes or if we’re on the phone, of course we’ll bring it up.”
Q: How much did your first nine years here flash through your mind at the end of that game, or the months since?
A: “It comes up often because it’s the very thing that I’m fueled by. It’s great, because this doesn’t happen to a lot of coaches. They go through their entire careers – and players – and never won a national championship. You always kind of reflect on your journey and see where, and I always reflect on the journey of where we came from. And we come from the depths of losing. From that you gain, you gain with experience, you gain by trying to figure it out, that is the fascination of coaching and trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and at the same time, try to sustain a program, a winning program. Somebody asked me, I think we were at the SEC spring meetings, Frank (Martin) and I were in the same room and someone asked me how many SEC games we won the first year. Two. Two. Two and (12). And I always tell Frank, he’s ahead of where we were in five years. He got to the Final Four in five, and we got there in seven.”
Q: How much have you mentioned trying to win another title to your team?
A: “I haven’t really had a talk. We’re going to practice today (last week), so I’m going to have a little talk today. I got a feeling that these freshmen don’t quite get it. I just have a feeling. They might think they’ve arrived, and we got to make sure that they stay humble, they stay hard-working and they understand really – which they probably won’t ever, until they get their heads bashed in by some opponent – how hard it is, and the margin of error, how small that is. And we have to create that, we have to create that for them on and off the court so they are real understanding of what it takes to be a national champion.”
Q: Have you spoken to your rising seniors and upperclassmen about leading?
A: “I’ve talked with them individually but I haven’t sat down with them – they just got back to campus and we’ve been busy with recruits and getting ready for camp. But you also want to give them room to see where leaders step up. If we’re always telling them, ‘You’re the leader,’ we’re giving them those titles. You got to earn it. Right now is when people earn it. So when we sit down maybe later on today, we’ll talk to the freshmen, ‘Who’s been the person that you’ve leaned on in your short time being here?,’ and see what they say.”
Q: A’ja Wilson has always handled the attention. How do you think she’ll handle a season as a reigning national champ and favorite for National Player of the Year?
A: “I think we’ve done a great job at giving her the load she could bear for this moment. It’s a buildup. I know everybody wanted her, she’s been the face of our program for a while, but she also had other people like Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell, she’s had other people where she could fly under the radar a little bit. And each year, she’s come out of her shell a little bit more and more and more and also just taken on more responsibility for this moment. And I think she’s just been building toward this. I don’t think no one will throw anything at her that she’s not comfortable with.”
Q: How disappointed was she to not win National Player of the Year last year?
A: “I’m quite sure she’s disappointed. I was disappointed. It’s nothing against Kelsey Plum at all. I gave her the best guard in the country (the Dawn Staley Award). But you got great players in this country and across this nation, but for her not to get one of them? I think something’s wrong with our game. Not one of them? And one of them was awarded after the national championship, so … to each his own. And I know I’m biased, but she’s 6-5, she won us a national championship, she’s an All-American, we won our league, we won our tournament. Not many national players of the year have her resume.”
Q: Your trophy case is also filled with four straight SEC regular-season championships and three straight SEC tournament titles. How much of a goal is it to extend those streaks?
A: “I know what kind of goals I have for our team. I don’t want my goals to be their goals. I want their goals to be their goals. I know I’m not going to coach any differently, but I think it’s a little bit different when they voice what they want. It’s easy to coach them when they voice what they want. For nine out of our 12 or 13 players, they’ve all experienced three or less titles. It’s our job, the ones that have experience, to get the young ones ready. Because they just don’t know. They’re fresh out of high school, they were the best players on their teams, they have no idea. They have no idea about practice, they have no idea about the SEC, they have no idea about going up to play Maryland at Maryland, they have no idea how to accomplish those things on this level.”
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