|NCAA Women's Basketball|
Staley ready to put aside title celebrations, get to work
By PETE IACOBELLI
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Dawn Staley spent the summer on a wild, national championship ride she almost wishes didn't have to end.
South Carolina's women's basketball coach toured facilities in Tokyo where she hopes in three years to lead the United States to another gold medal, she threw out first pitches at baseball and softball games and rode around Darlington Raceway in a pace car. During her adventures, much of the time she was wearing the championship netting - her "netlace," as she called it - around her neck.
Now, she's focused on leading the Gamecocks to another championship season.
"We've soaked it in and we're going to continue to enjoy it," she said Thursday. "It's just something that stays with you. Something as big as the national championship, you don't want to lose sight of it.
"I want it to re-occur," she continued, "hopefully, sooner rather than later."
That might be difficult seeing as how the Gamecocks lost three-fifths of their lineup in center Alaina Coates and guards Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, all who were first-round WNBA draft picks.
Gray, who's taking classes at South Carolina to finish up her degree, was voted the league's rookie of the year this week. Staley took a photo of Gray's award sitting next to the national championship trophy in the entrance to the Gamecocks' basketball offices.
"How about that?" Staley beamed, standing in front of the trophy case.
If the Gamecocks want more hardware, they will lean heavily on two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year, All-American A'ja Wilson.
Wilson took her game to another level during the NCAA Tournament, so much so that Staley chuckled remembering how teammate Gray told the 6-foot-5 forward she had to calm herself in the title game win over Mississippi State.
This season, Wilson will be the Gamecocks' unquestioned centerpiece.
"She's a senior," Staley said. "She's the one picking out the furniture."
Behind Wilson is a roster with very little starting experience. That's why Staley is both eager and edgy when thinking of how they'll fit together when practice opens early next month.
To Staley, that's the true joy of coaching for her.
Many championship programs like UConn mold the players into a system, Staley said. That's not what happens with the Gamecocks, who often change up offensive styles to take advantage of their players' strengths.
She recalled sitting around her office table with her four players (Coates, Davis, Gray and Wilson) and explaining how it would be next to impossible that each one would get the same amount of touches, accolades or attention during the season.
The group had to shift its roles again when Coates was ruled out of the NCAAs with a significant ankle injury. Staley went to a more free-flowing offensive attack to take advantage of Davis and Gray's outside skills.
"They had to accept their roles," Staley said. "If we can get this year's group to do the same, we'll have a chance."
The Japan trip for a three-game exhibition in June gave Staley an early look at the makeup of this year's team.
Staley, who never really wanted be coach, marveled at run of success.
"We wondered if we committed professional suicide" after her first two years at South Carolina, Staley said.
The Gamecocks have won four straight SEC regular-season titles and three consecutive league tournaments. Staley knows that just a start of the extended dominance Tennessee enjoyed during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Staley's not putting a time limit how long the Gamecocks run will last.
Staley said the grind won't stop even if that original focus has changed in the aftermath of the championship.
"I can breathe a little easier, for sure," she said. "To be the best, you can't rest on your laurels. I don't want to do that. I want to win another national championship, I want to win multiple national championships."
Updated September 21, 2017