DALLAS—In the end, when Dawn Staley won the right to coach A’ja Wilson three years ago, she set into motion the process that led to Sunday night’s 67-55 win over Mississippi State to win the Gamecocks their first national title.
In Bianca Cuevas-Moore, the Gamecocks possessed a junior capable of bodying up Morgan William, denying her the space to operate and keeping her from controlling the offensive flow as she had against both Connecticut and Baylor over the past two games. The Bronx is very present in her game, not to mention her appraisal of it as she reflected upon a championship in the locker room: “I mean, we just played hard. I’m a great defender, and we wanted to make it hard for them.” She did, making William a relative non-factor.
In Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, Staley added the two transfers she needed to complete this championship roster, two wings that are effectively guards in their ability to slash and create, mismatches that Mississippi State never solved Sunday night, the two combining for 28 points and 16 rebounds.
“We stuck to our gameplan and stayed aggressive,” Davis said. “With them, the biggest thing is rebounding, so we knew if we came in and got stops and were aggressive in rebounding the ball, we really liked our chances.” Davis grabbed ten boards herself. While much of the attention went to Wilson to fill the void when Alaina Coates was lost for the season, it is Davis who elevated her true shooting percentage by double digits in the NCAA Tournament, Davis who filled the role of high-post passer, Davis who changed.
Wilson? She stayed precisely herself. It was Wilson who, unflappable in the biggest moments of her career to date, simply continued to live her mantra of allowing the game to come to her. There’s a certain security one must possess to do this, and Wilson clearly did even before winning a championship. She did even when fellow big Alaina Coates went down with a season-ending injury. It’s hard to imagine that changing now that she’s cut down the net.
“I just honestly think that’s a pride thing, within myself, that I just kind of say, You just got to take it all in stride, don’t force stuff,” Wilson said from the podium when it was over, and she’d been named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. “You got to trust your teammates in that way. I trust my teammates a lot. I know the guards are going to hit shots, I know my other post players are going to work and dive when I need them to. It really comes from trust, letting the game come to you….It was tough losing Lai. At the same time I have to step up in different ways. I can’t foul as much as I would or if I could. I can’t do certain things. So I think that really helped my game out, just playing smarter.”
That calm, that evenness drew criticisms at times. After all, shouldn’t the star player force the action when necessary? Why wasn’t Wilson willing to do more? This season, this championship, serves as vindication for the way Wilson, and Staley guiding her, approached the evolution of her game, letting her court intelligence dictate how and where she contributed on each play.
“I just thought that A’ja Wilson needed a coach which could be patient with her, ’cause she’s different,” Staley said. “She’s different. She’s not one that you can keep pounding. She’s one that needs to see it, needs it explained to her, and needs someone to be real patient with her. If you’re patient with her, you know, this is what you get in return.”
As for Staley, there’s little left for her to accomplish in the game of basketball. When asked, she pointed to the chance to win gold as USA Basketball head coach in 2020, but that’s less a box to check than one to re-check, with Staley already winning gold as both a player and an assistant coach.
Her gameplan was letter-perfect Sunday night. Mississippi State is a strong defensive team, but struggled mightily on cuts and isolation sets, per Synergy. So the normal diet of three-point shots and post looks for A’ja Wilson were refined, game-by-game against the Bulldogs. In their first matchup, South Carolina took 13 threes. In the second one? Eight. Sunday night? In the championship game? Three. They didn’t make one, and it didn’t slow them down any, because Staley had the right personnel, and she knew how to deploy them.
“This is our third time playing them, so we know exactly the things that create edges for us throughout the game,” Staley said. “I just thought, you know, from an offensive standpoint we needed to attack the paint. Yes, Mississippi State is a very good defensive team. They’re also a team that fouls a lot. We wanted to make sure that we put ’em back on their heels, put them back in situations in which we were going to make the officials make a call, whether it was a charge, whether it was a block, whether it was a reach-in. We feel like, with any team, a good defensive team or not, if you’re attacking the paint, it’s just a hard guard. Our players stuck to the game plan, you know, executed the game plan to a T.”
Seventeen years after she began her unlikely coaching career—she never wanted to do it, talked into the job by then-Temple Athletic Director Dave O’Brien—she’s found her way to the pinnacle of the profession, just as surely as she played her way to the top of the sport before that.
Sunday night, a championship hat on, the net around her neck, Staley didn’t have many answers about what next goal to reach for because she’s already there. She’s at the pinnacle.
This sport belongs to Dawn Staley now.