DALLAS – In a sold-out American Airlines Center, three-time Olympian and current U.S. women’s basketball national team coach, Dawn Staley led her squad, the No. 1-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks, to victory over No. 2-seeded Mississippi State, 67-55, in front of 19,229 fans.
The game pitted the two top teams in the Southeastern Conference against each other with the younger coach taking home the trophy. She became just the second person to both play and serve as a head coach in a national championship game (the other: Kim Mulkey – played at Louisiana Tech, head coach at Baylor).
The win was all the more impressive as the defense of the Gamecocks was crucial in defeating a team led by Vic Schaefer, affectionately known as the “Minister of Defense” in the women’s basketball coaching community. It was the third time the two SEC teams met each other this season. So, in Staley’s words regarding the Bulldogs: “We know exactly the things that create edges for us throughout the game.”
“I just thought, you know, from an offensive standpoint we needed to attack the paint,” explained Staley. “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,” she continued. “Our players stuck to the game plan, you know, executed the game plan to a T. Also I know we talk a lot about other teams being a good defensive team. But South Carolina is a really good defensive team, a really good defensive team. We hang our hat on that. I’m proud of our players. To hold Mississippi State to 55 points, probably 20 points under their average in the tournament, goes to show our commitment to that side of the basketball.”
Led by junior forward A’ja Wilson who finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks, the Gamecocks trailed only in the first quarter and once they gained the lead, they never looked back on the way to victory, holding Mississippi State without a field goal for over 5 minutes.
The on-court celebration was an emotional time for Wilson and she explained why during the postgame presser.
“Well, in October I lost my grandmother,” said Wilson. “I really kind of dedicated this season to her. It was a very emotional time for me. My teammates really rallied around me, helped me become a better person, a great player. Just to have — for us to face adversity like we did, for us to overcome it, the doubters we had, just shake them off, honestly get this national championship, hanging up a banner, getting this ring, it really meant a lot to me.
This team is just so special,” continued Wilson. “I can’t really put into words and explain to you how special this team really is, on and off the court. For us to really just see smiling faces, just positive vibes, it really set me into tears. I really couldn’t hold them back.”
South Carolina junior guard Alisha Gray posted her first career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Fellow junior guard Kaela Davis also finished in double figures with 10 points and 6 rebounds. Floor general Bianca Cuevas-Moore was a defensive linchpin for the Gamecocks hindering the production of Mississippi State star guard Morgan William.
“She committed to impacting the game by picking Morgan William up, making it very difficult for her,” said Staley about the performance of Cuevas-Moore. “She knew the game plan was to make it difficult for Morgan to operate in areas in which she could control their team, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s finding other teammates.
“I knew she was going to impact the game in this way from the moment we knew we would play Mississippi State,” continued Staley. “She was great in practice yesterday. She was great in shootaround. If you ask her a question about anything, her answer was, I know the game plan, I got it. A lot of times when a player’s that confident, you don’t know if they’re going to be able to deliver. But I knew deep down Bianca Cuevas was going to come through for us, and she did just that.”
Junior guard Victoria Vivians paced Mississippi State with 12 points plus 4 rebounds. Senior guard Dominique Dillingham finished with 11 points and 4 rebounds. Sophomore center Teaira McCowan pulled down 10 rebounds to go with her 7 points.
The triumph gave South Carolina its first-ever national championship, a feat that was a goal of Staley’s when she left the head coaching job at Temple for the Gamecocks nine seasons ago. She missed winning a national championship when she was a player at Virginia in 1992. Her Cavaliers lost to Stanford that year in the semifinals of the Final Four.
“I never gave up on winning a national championship,” said Staley, “no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like. I’m just so happy that I get a chance to share it with so many different people in my coaching and basketball family tree. Coaches, former players, mentors, everybody.”