Dawn Staley coaches South Carolina to the program's first NCAA title

DALLAS -- When the buzzer sounded on April 4, 1992, Dawn Staley's teammates knew she would need some help just getting back to the locker room. She was devastated, her college playing career over, a national championship not won after Staley's Virginia team lost to Stanford in the national semifinals.

"I was exhausted, because I wanted it so much," Staley said. "I put so much work and energy into being a national champion that the emotion was just to cry. To let it out. And 25 years later, no tears. Just going to enjoy it."

Because Sunday night, Staley finally got the happy ending to a season that eluded her when she was a college point guard. Her South Carolina Gamecocks won the NCAA women's basketball title with a 67-55 victory over Mississippi State, and one of the most popular, well-liked figures in her sport had at last gotten the prize.

"When I couldn't get it done in college," Staley said, "I thought that was it."

But the quest that went unfulfilled then actually was still just the early part of Staley's basketball journey. She would go on to win three Olympic gold medals. She would be part of the launch of the ABL, and then also play in the WNBA. She would become a college coach, something she once thought she'd never do.

And as she stood in the hallway of the American Airlines Center on Sunday after cutting down the nets, among the many emotions swirling inside Staley were relief and gratitude.

Staley is just the second African-American coach to win the NCAA women's basketball title. Carolyn Peck was the first, leading Purdue to the 1999 national championship. Staley commended Peck for leading the way.

"A few years ago, she gave me a piece of her national championship net. She told me to keep it," Staley said. "I've had it in my wallet for years. She said, 'When you win your national championship, just return it.'

"I'm going to have to pass a piece of my net on to somebody else so they can share and hopefully accomplish something as big as this."

Only Kim Mulkey has won an NCAA women's basketball title as both a player (Louisiana Tech) and a coach (Baylor). Marianne Stanley did it in the AIAW as a player (Immaculata) and in the NCAA as a coach (Old Dominion). Stanley's Immaculata teammate Theresa Grentz won AIAW titles as both a player and a coach (Rutgers).

Staley didn't win an NCAA title, although she went with Virginia to the Women's Final Four three times (1990-92). The closest she came was agonizing: a 70-67 overtime loss to Tennessee. Staley had 28 points and 11 rebounds in that game and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player -- the only person who's won that honor from a losing team in the history of the NCAA tournament.

Staley's former backcourt mate at Virginia, Tammi Reiss, said that for weeks after that loss, Staley watched the tape of it over and over, trying to pinpoint the mistakes the Cavaliers had made.

"It just hurt so bad then," Reiss said back in 2015, when Staley first led the Gamecocks to the Final Four. "And to this day, March Madness comes and I get this little twinge like, 'Damn it! We didn't do it.' It still kills me, and I know it eats at Dawn."

Reiss and former Virginia coach Debbie Ryan were among those who went to Tampa, Florida, for the 2015 Final Four, where South Carolina lost to Notre Dame in the semifinals. Then last year, Reiss was an assistant coach for the Syracuse team that upset South Carolina in the Sweet 16.

"I wanted to Tammi to win it last year so we could feel a part of it," Staley said of the Orange, who fell to UConn in the final. "Debbie's here now, I spoke with her earlier today. All of my former teammates and coaches at Virginia, we got so close. We tasted it in 1991 and didn't get it done. I hope they know they can check off the box of winning a national championship through me."

The fans who loved Staley at Virginia stuck with her in her pro basketball career. Then they became fans of Temple when Staley took over that program in her hometown of Philadelphia in 2000. She had to be talked into taking that job, as she still wasn't sure that coaching was for her.

But she soon found out it was her calling after all. After success at Temple, where she took the Owls to the NCAA tournament six times, she knew it was time to go elsewhere. South Carolina wasn't a powerhouse; it had mostly been in the shadow of SEC titan Tennessee. But Staley saw the potential in South Carolina. And the fans who'd followed her to that point transferred their allegiance to the Gamecocks.

That's because of the kind of person Staley is. As her former college coach, Ryan, puts it, "She shares everything."

Staley had losing records her first two seasons at South Carolina. Then she went to the WNIT her third season, 2010-11. The breakthrough happened the next year: A 25-10 overall record, 10-6 in the SEC, and trip to the NCAA Sweet 16.

The Gamecocks women's basketball team was on its way to being a phenomenon in South Carolina. Staley was able to keep top recruits from the state and region, and that strengthened the connection people had to the team.

But so did Staley's constant presence on social media, her work in the community, her visits to dorms to talk to students. She asked Gamecock fans to embrace her program, and they were more than happy to do that.

The biggest recruit of all was A'ja Wilson, who grew up in greater Columbia, South Carolina, and went to Heathwood Hall. She made her decision in 2014 to join the Gamecocks, and a year later as a freshman helped them make the program's first Final Four.

Asked what quality Staley brings most to her leadership of the team, Wilson said, "Honesty. She doesn't sugarcoat anything for you. She's going to be straight up with you. I think you really need a head coach that's going to be honest, not sweet to you all the time.

"She really pushes your buttons. I think that's something that helps us. And it's going to help us later on in life, when the ball stops bouncing, to succeed."

"I don't know how to celebrate, I don't know how to act. I don't know how a national champion is supposed to look. It feels incredible." Dawn Staley

At the same time, the Gamecocks also consider Staley a player's coach, someone they feel they can talk to about anything.

"She's real down-to-earth," junior Allisha Gray said. "She's almost like ... well, she is one of us."

In fact, sometimes when Staley is wearing her sweats, walking with her team into a restaurant or hotel, people still mistake her for a player. And she sometimes teases her Gamecocks, particularly the perimeter players, that she's still the best point guard in town.

But, in fact, she's been able to empower all of them, including the freshman who ran the point for South Carolina most of this season, Tyasha Harris.

"Last year, about this time, they were still recruiting me," said Harris, who didn't make her college choice until April 2016. "They said, 'You should come here so we can get this done.' And now, we've gotten it done. I'm just happy that I could help Coach Staley get another accolade.

"She's helped me overcome adversity, taught me about knowing your teammates, how to run your team and be a leader."

Looking at it now, it's almost impossible to believe that Staley ever doubted she should coach. It seems the perfect profession for her, a natural extension of everything she did as a player.

And even though Staley won Olympic and world championship gold medals as a competitor, what happened Sunday was something different. It filled a little hole that remained in Staley's heart, and it raised her up all the more in the hearts of South Carolina followers everywhere.

"I don't know how to celebrate, I don't know how to act. I don't know how a national champion is supposed to look," Staley said, still letting the reality sink in that the title was hers. "It feels incredible. To have our players execute the game plan, do everything they've worked so hard for."

Wilson, who finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, has wanted this for Staley as much as she has herself. With the loss of injured Alaina Coates for the NCAA tournament, Staley had to rely more than ever on Wilson.

"To do this for Coach means something really special for me," Wilson said. "I felt like she had everything on her résumé but a national championship. So to be a part of that, it's just great."