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Dawn Staley diary: ‘This season, it wasn’t meant to be’

Coach discusses the tough end to South Carolina’s season, her interactions with Arizona head coach Adia Barnes and looking forward to the Summer Games in Tokyo

Throughout the season, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley has shared her thoughts with The Undefeated, chronicling a season that has been unlike any other in college basketball history. In her final entry, Staley discusses the tough end to South Carolina’s season, her interactions with Arizona head coach Adia Barnes about the national championship game and looking forward to the Summer Games in Tokyo, where she’ll serve as the head coach of USA Basketball.

This season, it wasn’t meant to be

In 2017, when we won the national championship, we attended a banquet at the New York City Athletic Club with the UNC men’s basketball team, who had won the men’s national title. Roy Williams spoke at the banquet.

Something I will always remember is him saying if you go on ESPN right now and look at the scores in college basketball, you’ll see South Carolina and Mississippi State. And you’ll see South Carolina winning the national championship. You’re going to see that until basketball season starts up again. Every day, if you go to scores.

I had my phone that night and I looked, and every year after that I’ve looked. It serves as a constant reminder of your team ending on top. How freaking cool is that? This year, you’ll see Stanford.  

I want our name to be plastered for the offseason. It’s a constant reminder of the work you put in or the work you need to put in.

It all goes back to just the margin of error. You know? There are so many things that you work on throughout the season and you’re just planning for that moment of being able to compete for a national championship. And as much as you stress certain things – a boxout, or the 50-50 ball, the hustle point – in the moment, you can’t feel it. You can’t recognize it, because it’s so routine that it’s so a part of our game.

I’ve watched clips of our Final Four game, and I’m looking at that ball that got away from one of our players and went into Haley Jones’ hands. She just had the sense to shoot it. It was an unexpected shot. I look back on it, sometimes it’s just not in the cards. This season, it wasn’t meant to be.

But you still got to work towards those moments and I’m formulating that for our team. You’ve got to create a healthy balance with all of that because the game is made up of big and small things. Small things do add up. But, if we’re up 10, that rebound ain’t much. If we make our layups? That rebound is not as important as it was.

After the game, I texted Aliyah Boston. I told her, ‘Don’t let these moments define who you are. As much as you want to feel bad right now, Aliyah, they don’t define who you are. It’s time to turn the page and make this a distant memory with all the other things that you’re going to accomplish.’ I told her I love her.

Players are going to be players, and players are going to hold onto things. That’s the very thing that’s going to motivate them. I know, before all is said and done, she’ll have a lot more instances where she’s cutting down nets and crying tears of joy than the opposite.

A victory for Black coaches

Before Sunday’s national championship game between Arizona and Stanford, I got a text from Adia Barnes. She said she was kind of nervous. 

I told her she had already won. She already won. The game is the formality right now.

I think, as a society, we’re more aware of what has happened and the fact that it’s not just about basketball anymore. It’s not. We hope to get back to that place where it’s just about basketball, but we know too much now. We must acknowledge these accomplishments that happen in the game. We must acknowledge when things look abnormal to the masses, like having two Black coaches in the Final Four or one Black coach in the national championship, until it becomes normal and all the masses want to do is acknowledge Black coaches for their great coaching prowess. That’s easier said than done, because it’s never been done. So we’re going to acknowledge, because for us, we want this to be the norm.

Let’s acknowledge it. And let’s get on to the point where we don’t have to acknowledge it.

Because that means more of us are there.

After the game, I texted Adia. I told her I’m proud of her and that it won’t be her last time experiencing this and that she represented us well.

In 2015, Carolyn Peck gave me a piece of the net she cut down after becoming the first Black coach to win a national championship in women’s college basketball in 1999 with Purdue. I carried it in my wallet until we won our championship in 2017. 

I get to coach with Adia for the upcoming FIBA AmeriCup. I told her when she gets to South Carolina that I’m giving her a piece of my net. She deserves it.

I had the 2017 net in the rearview mirror of the car that I drive. I kept it there as a constant reminder. But I may just have to cut that up and spread it out amongst all of the Black head coaches in the country, so we all have something tangible to hold on to. And we’ve even got a couple more that got some jobs out here. It could act as a welcoming of our line. So, yeah, that’s what I’ll do.

‘It’s a lovefest here in South Carolina’

When I came to South Carolina, I never thought about fans or the importance of a home-court advantage. That was the furthest thing from my sight line. I was just focused on winning and turning our program around. I mean, honestly, I didn’t even factor in fans.

I didn’t know what that looked like. I never knew because I never really had it. We used to go to Connecticut and we saw that. We used to go to Tennessee and we saw how many people show up in their arena. 

I was too far into: ‘We’re turning the ball over too much. We don’t have enough talent. We don’t have this, that or the other.’ I never paid attention to it, and I never knew how important it was.

On Saturday afternoon, the day we arrived home from the NCAA tournament, our fans could have been anywhere – with other family, on the riverwalk, the park, brunch – it was a beautiful day. They chose to come spend it with us. So many fans packed the parking lots of Colonial Life Arena and celebrated us as the team circled in a car caravan.

It made their day. They told us how hard we worked. They told us how much they appreciate us. We told them how much we love them. It’s a lovefest here in South Carolina, between us and our fans. It’s a lifestyle for them. They live for this. And honestly, I wouldn’t even want it any other way. I’ve come to expect nothing differently than what they displayed on Saturday.

I’ve always credited our fans for making it look like the winning program that I imagined us to be. 

Next? Bringing home gold in the Olympics

1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2016, 2021.

This summer will be my sixth Olympic Games. Six.

It doesn’t get any better than playing against the best in the world. I’m not talking about the country, it’s the world.

I’ve given my life to USA Basketball. I played in the summer of ’96, when we won a gold medal and began this streak we’ve been on for over two decades. It’s pretty cool to have a chance to extend that streak to seven straight gold medals, now as a head coach.

It seems like it’s been a long, long time, which it has, because it’s five years instead of four years getting back to this point. I do believe other countries have gotten better because women’s basketball, as a whole, continues to grow.

It’s pressure-packed, we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to win. We’ve got to win our seventh consecutive gold medal, because I don’t want it to be me who ended the streak – for a lot of reasons. One of them being the opportunities that a Black coach gets. We’ve got to be successful. There’s this pressure on a lot of fronts. That’s one of them.

It’s also scary. The pandemic will not be over when the Olympics arrive. I’m more scared of COVID than I am of actually playing the game. But I’m excited at the same time, because the Olympics have been a big part of my life.

I’m excited to be a part of some first-timers. If A’ja [Wilson] makes the team, it’d be great to do it with her and win a gold medal with her. If any of our South Carolina players get a chance to win, get a chance to be named one of the 12, I mean, I will be superhappy.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.