When Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team takes the court against Temple on Thursday, it will be about as perfect a full circle as she could ever hope to draw.
On the floor of the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Staley will return to her hometown, to the school where she first began coaching, on the night when one of her greatest players with the Owls, Candice Dupree, will have her number retired, with the chance to take sole possession of USC’s program record for most head coaching wins.
It will also be almost exactly 15 years to the day since South Carolina and Temple, Staley’s past and future, last played each other. Back on Dec. 27, 2002, Staley was a third-year coach coming off her first NCAA tournament appearance, trying to upset the No. 18 Gamecocks on her home floor. On Dec. 21, 2017, Staley will be leading the fourth-ranked defending national champions, trying to avoid a huge upset on the road.
Temple is “the platform that gave me an opportunity to coach and impact young people’s lives on a daily basis,” Staley said Tuesday. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, so it’s always going to be a great place and a special place in my heart because 18 years later I’m still doing this and I’m still happy to be doing this.”
Oh, and there’s a basketball game that has to be played. Given all the off-the-court storylines going into Thursday’s game, it might be easy for Gamecock fans to forget that Staley and USC still need to take care of business against the 8-3 Owls, who are led by senior guard Tanaya Atkinson and freshman forward Mia Davis.
“We’ve played in the Final Four, we’ve played in the national championship game, so nothing really compares to playing on that stage. So we can compartmentalize on that stage, just going back to Philly and playing Temple, we can draw on those experiences. It certainly is a business trip and we want to win the game,” Staley said.
South Carolina will have just nine players available Thursday for the fifth consecutive game — injured redshirt senior Lindsey Spann is still working her way back from a knee injury, and transfer junior Te’a Cooper is waiting to hear back from the NCAA about a potential waiver to let her play immediately.
However, Staley expressed guarded optimism both Cooper and Spann could be available when the Gamecocks open SEC play against Texas A&M on Dec. 31.
Against the Owls, meanwhile, senior forward A’ja Wilson will try to put together another strong performance in front of one her coach’s other great forwards, Dupree, a six-time WNBA All-Star who will likely play Wilson in the pros next year.
“It is, of course, going to be an emotional game for us. We want to do well for coach at the place where she started things off,” Wilson said after South Carolina’s win on Sunday. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, I’m excited to go to Philly.”
A victory for USC would also mark Staley’s 232nd win in her 10th season with the program, breaking a tie with Nancy Wilson for the most wins by a Gamecock coach.
“I mean, I came here 10 years ago to turn the program around and win a national championship. That got done with some incredible people, coaches, players, community, everybody. So I think it’s a tribute to what everybody has contributed to our program,” Staley said after win No. 231 against Savannah State.
Regardless of the result on Thursday, however, Staley said she still owes Temple and former players like Dupree a debt of gratitude for shaping who she is as a coach today.
“What I learned is, take each day as it is and take each player as they are,” Staley said of the biggest lesson she learned at Temple. “You want to make an impact, but players grow and learn at their own pace no matter how much we try to expedite that process. So they taught me how to just kind of allow them to grow on their own terms, but still not sacrifice your core values or your principles.”
South Carolina tips off against Temple in Philadelphia at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Gamecock Fan Essentials
Who: Temple, 8-3, 0-0 AAC
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Liacouras Center, Philadelphia
Watch: Steaming on ESPN3
Listen: 107.5 The Game
History: South Carolina is 2-0 against the Owls, last playing them in 2002, when Staley was still the coach at Temple, and winning 57-39.
Key storyline: The obvious answer is Staley’s triumphant return to the school and arena where her coaching career started. But on the court, the Owls are not the kind of opponent that can be easily overlooked, recently playing No. 20 Villanova to a narrow 69-65 loss. The biggest concern for the Gamecocks will be staying focused for a full 40 minutes, especially with their thin bench.