For all of her accomplishments in her Hall of Fame playing career, there was one title that eluded Dawn Staley. For 26 years, she’s lived with the regret that she never won an NCAA title.
Finally, Staley’s trophy collection is complete.
Staley coached the University of South Carolina their first women’s basketball national title Sunday night, 67-55 over Mississippi State, behind a 23-point, 10-rebound performance from Gamecocks junior forward A’ja Wilson.
The win was the culmination of the Gamecocks climb under Staley, who was hired in 2008. First, South Carolina became an SEC power, and two years ago, advanced to their first-ever Final Four. Staley, who won three Olympic gold medals with Team USA and was a six-time WNBA all-star, built a program attractive enough to land top recruits, like Wilson, who was the top player in the 2014 class, and top transfers, like guard Kaela Davis, who came to Columbia from Georgia Tech for the chance to compete for a national title.
Staley’s team never trailed in Sunday’s championship game at the American Airlines Center. The Gamecocks made 46% of their shots, all while not making a single three-point shot. South Carolina didn’t even attempt a three-pointer until late in the second quarter.
South Carolina’s game plan was clear. The Gamecocks were going to win this game by being aggressive in the paint. South Carolina was able to dictate the game with their up-tempo offense, and continually worked the ball around the court and under the basket to Wilson.
Wilson grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a put back shot with 1:40 remaining to essentially seal the win for South Carolina. As Mississippi State called for a timeout, Wilson stomped her feet and yelled, urging on her teammates for the game’s final stretch.
Wilson’s strong offensive night, combined with the sharp-shooting of guard Allisha Gray, who added 18 points, helped the Gamecocks build as much as a 14-point lead in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs rallied late in the third quarter and cut the lead to four points, after a steal and layup from guard Morgan William and free throws from center Teaira McCowan, but the charge was short-lived. Davis drained a jump shot at the third-quarter buzzer to take a 52-44 lead heading into the final quarter.
South Carolina’s defense, meanwhile, frustrated a Mississippi State offense that had been so prolific at times in this tournament, with three 90-point performances in March. But the Gamecocks continually pressured Bulldogs star guard Morgan William, who hit just one basket in the first half and was benched for half of the first quarter after an early turnover and foul.
The loss ends what had been an impressive tournament run for the Bulldogs, who knocked off No. 1 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight and on Friday ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak with a 66-64 overtime win in the Final Four.