Phenom vs. Master: Dawn Staley and Tara VanDerveer go head-to-head in a Final Four with strong Olympic flavor

March 27, 2017 (Stockton, Calif.) - Dawn Staley after her team won beat Florida State in the Elite Eight.
March 27, 2017 (Stockton, Calif.) – Dawn Staley after her team won beat Florida State in the Elite Eight.

DALLAS – After beating Florida State in the Elite Eight of this year’s NCAA Tournament, South Carolina’s Dawn Staley described the opportunity to coach in the Final Four along with two former head coaches of the U.S. Women’s Olympic basketball team as being “amongst greatness.”

Her team’s semifinal contest in the Final Four will be against the Stanford Cardinal, led by Tara VanDerveer, the national team coach during the 1996 Olympics. On the other side of the bracket sits the coach of the last two U.S. Olympic gold-medal teams, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma. All three coaches are members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“As a coach, you want to coach against the best. That’s why I left Temple to come to South Carolina to coach in the SEC with what I think are some of the greatest coaches in the game. And then you get to this stage at the Final Four, and then it’s another tier of coaches who have won national championships, have won gold medals, have won a thousand games. I think it’s just great.”

Of course, Staley’s Olympic performances and coaching win-loss records are also impressive. The three-time gold medalist played on that 1996 team that VanDerveer coached and carried the flag for the U.S. delegation during the 2004 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in Athens.

Her camaraderie with VanDerveer goes back over 25 years from the time when she was a member of the 1991 World University Games team that VanDerveer coached.

“I think I’ve always had a very good relationship with Dawn,” said VanDerveer this week.

Since the two first met, the Stanford coach has entered even more rarefied territory as one of only two women’s basketball coaches to earn 1,000 career wins while Staley has steadily climbed into the upper echelons of the coaching world as well.

When VanDerveer celebrated her 1,000th win, the celebratory video showed on the jumbotron at Maples Pavilion postgame included gracious words from Staley.

“When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” she joked. When mentioning VanDerveer’s milestone she continued the comical tone.

“Unfortunately though, a couple of those wins are against us, but I’m not going to hold that against you. I wish you many, many more. The game is much better with you in it and your wins.”

VanDerveer, in her-31st season at Stanford, has kept the Cardinal among the elite for so long that it is hard to imagine the program ever being out of the rankings or national conversation about deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.

Stanford is 5-0 all-time against South Carolina including a win in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal beat the Gamecoks 76-60 in the Sweet 16 in Fresno, Calif. on March 24, 2012 when South Carolina was still an up-and-coming scrappy team under Staley in her fourth year with the team. That season South Carolina had its first 20-plus win season since 2002-03.

When Staley became the first-ever African American and youngest coach to take the helm of the U.S. women’s basketball Olympic team in early March, VanDerveer had nothing but praise.

“I’m thrilled for Dawn,” she said. “I think it is a great decision by USA Basketball. She’ll do a fabulous job and she’s so committed to USA Basketball as a player, as an assistant, carrying the flag. She’s so passionate about basketball, I’m really excited for her.”

Now with years of experience as an elite coach and a talented team riding a 31-4 record, the younger phenom has a chance to match wits with the master, going head-to-head with VanDerveer in the first semifinal of the 2017 Final Four.

For fans, the matchup between mentor and coach should be fascinating.

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