AP Basketball Writer
DALLAS (AP) – Dawn Staley hopes to pass along a piece of her first championship net to another aspiring African-American coach – the same as Carolyn Peck did for her years ago.
Staley joined Peck as the only African-American coaches to win an NCAA women’s basketball championship Sunday night when South Carolina beat Mississippi State 67-55. Peck, who won a title at Purdue in 1999, gave Staley a piece of her net a few years ago when she was a commentator. Staley has held it close ever since.
“I’ve had it in my wallet for years. She said, ‘When you win your national championship, just return it,'” Staley said. “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. I do have to give a shout out to Carolyn Peck, and I will return her net, thankfully.”
Staley proudly wore the net she cut down around her neck and still had it on hours later when she left the arena.
“I’m going to enjoy it. It’s something that I’ve been coaching for 17 years now. I played college basketball, what, 25 to 28 years ago. It took that long,” Staley said. “I also want people to know that just because something takes a long time, I mean, you have to have patience, you have to persevere, stay with it. If something is a goal of yours to accomplish, you don’t give up on it. I never gave up on winning a national championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like.”
A’ja Wilson scored 23 points to help coach Staley get her first title. Staley made the Final Four three times as a player at Virginia but never won. She also led the Gamecocks to the national semifinals two years ago before losing to Notre Dame.
“It means that I can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career,” Staley said. “Something I wanted to do. It was one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger: national championship games and Olympics. Those were things that I held dear and near to me growing up. Those were the things I saw and were shooting for.”
Wilson, a native South Carolina player who was Staley’s biggest recruit ever, was the key. She was thrilled to help Staley get her first title.
“I can’t put into words how much it meant to win the game for coach,” Wilson said. “She’s put in so much time and sweat into this. … It really means something special to bring this back home for such a great person like coach Staley.”
Mississippi State had all the momentum on its side after a shocking win over UConn on Friday night that ended the Huskies’ record 111-game winning streak. The Bulldogs couldn’t muster the same effort against the Gamecocks. Morgan William, who had become the face of the tournament with the game-winner against the Huskies after a 41-point performance against Baylor, was held to just 8 points.
South Carolina (33-4) turned a 10-point halftime lead into a 45-31 advantage midway through the third quarter before the Bulldogs rallied. Mississippi State (34-5) slowly cut into its deficit, getting with 54-50 on Jazzmun Holmes’ jumper. That brought a huge cheer from the thousands of Mississippi State fans who made the 8-hour trip from Starkville, Mississippi.
But that’s as close as the Bulldogs could get.
The victory in front of a sellout crowd came one day after the Gamecocks men’s basketball team lost in the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.
Wilson, who grew up in South Carolina, blocked a shot on one end of the court and then hit a short jumper in the lane that started a 12-2 run to put the game away. Staley emptied her bench with less than a minute left and Wilson left with tears of joy. The junior center sees a repeat in the future for the Gamecocks, who return most of their core players.
“Man, just be with us next year, we’re trying to be in this same spot next year, we’re going to see how it goes,” Wilson said after winning the most outstanding player award for the Final Four.
The Gamecocks won the title without star center Alaina Coates, who hurt her ankle in the SEC Tournament. She didn’t even travel with the team to Dallas.
“Our players never fretted, ‘La’ we got you a ring. We got you a ring,” Staley said of Coates. “Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis they all believed in it. They spent a year getting to know our team, getting to know our system. Got the opportunity to play and we become national champions.”
It was the third loss for the Bulldogs against the Gamecocks this season. Mississippi State dropped a game in South Carolina in the regular season as well as the SEC Tournament title game.
“Today doesn’t define us,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, who is 0-9 in his career against South Carolina. “It certainly doesn’t define this team or this season. We had a heck of a year. Obviously, we’ve had some hard times dealing with them. Today was no different.”
No team had a tougher road to the championship than the second-seeded Bulldogs. They were trying to become the third team in NCAA history to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to the title. Tennessee did it in 1987 and Louisiana Tech accomplished the same feat a year later. The Bulldogs had already knocked off top-seed Baylor and UConn to get to the championship game.
This was the sixth time in NCAA Tournament history that teams from the same conference played for the national championship, including three by the SEC. Tennessee won both of those matchups, the last coming in 1996 when the Lady Vols beat Georgia.
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