During last year's NCAA Tournament, Dawn Staley carried a piece of the net from South Carolina's 2017 championship as she looked to make the Gamecocks just the eighth program to win multiple titles in NCAA women's basketball history. Her team went on to lift the 2022 trophy, and now they are two wins from yet another one.
"It's a hell of a place to be," she told CBS Sports.
"I know I had goals and dreams that I aspired to accomplish, that's my selfish self. But, boy, when you're able to accomplish something with other people, with other people in mind, and other people get to share it, it's 100 times more gratifying. When you are able to share somebody else's dream, to me it's just to the 10th power of feel-good."
Her list of accomplishments is an extensive one. The WNBA Hall of Fame icon won three Olympic gold medals with Team USA as a player and another one as a head coach. Now she is using her talents to build something in South Carolina -- a team that went wire-to-wire as No. 1 last season and won the 2022 NCAA championship. And on Wednesday, Staley won her second straight (and third overall) Naismith Coach of the Year Award.
As a team, the Gamecocks are in a great spot, too. They earned the No. 1 overall seed in this year's tournament, are currently 36-0 and riding a 42-game winning streak that began with a first-round NCAA Tournament victory last season. Should the team prevail and cut down the net in Dallas Sunday afternoon, South Carolina would become just the fifth program in women's basketball history to defend their national title
To continue making history, the Gamecocks will have to first take down the Iowa Hawkeyes -- the best offensive team in the nation -- on Friday. If they get past Caitlin Clark and the Hawkeyes, their last challenge will be facing the winner of the LSU-Virginia Tech semifinal. Nothing is guaranteed, but South Carolina is the favorite to win it all again.
Reigning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston is still part of what is currently a very deep roster that holds the top scoring margin of 29.5 points per game. She averages 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, but her stats are down from last year because other players share more of the responsibilities. Zia Cooke leads in scoring with 15.1 points per game, and Kamilla Cardoso contributes 9.7 points and 8.4 boards per contest. Even Brea Beal, who is one of the best defenders on the team, can step up on offense, as shown by her season-high 16 points in the Elite Eight.
Wins and stats are fun to look at, but that's not what is most important for Staley. The coach said her "thing" is basketball but that there is a lot more to success than X's and O's, and the trophies at the end of a season are not the only measure of success.
"These are young people we mentor and lead. We help them navigate through life right now and when they leave you. That's a heavy load," she said.
"We coach first-generation graduates. That's a national championship type of accomplishment."
This moment between Aliyah Boston and Dawn Staley ❤️ pic.twitter.com/cIlZWvFo4h— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 5, 2023
Staley doesn't just focus on helping her own team. In 2021, she sent pieces of the Gamecocks' 2017 championship net to other Black women coaching Division I basketball as a way to share her accomplishment and encourage others to keep fighting for their dreams.
Carolyn Peck, the first Black woman to lead a team to a Division I basketball championship team, inspired Staley to adopt the practice in 2015 after receiving a piece the net that Peck earned when Purdue's women's team won it all in 1999. The only favor Peck requested was to have that piece of the Purdue net returned after Staley claimed her own title.
THIS! Incredible exchange between the visionary behind #pieceofthenet. Thx @CAROLYNPECK for your vision and belief #nationalchamps #whosnext pic.twitter.com/PAarcVk3nk— dawnstaley (@dawnstaley) April 29, 2017
In 2022, Staley became the first Black coach, man or woman, to win two Division I basketball titles. After the victory, she decided to expand her circle and share pieces of the net with Black male coaches and journalists.
Staley is inspiring others through basketball, but her own inspiration to succeed came from a different place.
"My mother was one of the strongest people that I know. Mentally and physically she just had stamina for whatever life threw her way," Staley said. "She handled it because you know she is a faithful one. She devoted her life to God and with him she could not fail. That's my inspiration."
One of Staley's favorite memories was giving her mother a gold medal after her first Olympics.
"To be able to have her share that moment, to put that gold medal around her neck, meant that I appreciate who she was as a mom," Staley said. "She was a disciplinarian, she didn't play but she had to be that way with us because she knew that a bad decision could derail us from some incredible successes in life."
Staley said she has been able to check off a lot of her goals, and now she wants to dedicate life to helping others reach their own dreams. She explained that the feeling of helping others can be just as gratifying as one's own successes.
"You want to just keep doing it and doing it, and you just keep finding stamina to do it. The more you do it, the more it comes back to you," Staley said. "I had incredible successes as a player, but because of my approach to help other people. This basketball thing has been a thing that keeps on giving to me. I'm going to keep trying to do the right thing and help others. I'll see where it continues to take me."