COLUMBIA — Of course she’s seen the replay. More than once.
Of course she feels the sting, too. This is the same woman who as a player, once chased officials off the floor begging them to put more time back on the clock so she could have another chance to win.
But Dawn Staley is South Carolina’s coach, and as harsh as it is seeing Brea Beal and Aliyah Boston each miss layups in the final four seconds of the Gamecocks’ 66-65 Final Four loss to Stanford, it has to be a teaching moment. As does the national championship game two nights after that, when Stanford beat Arizona in a game many at USC watched and thought, “That should be us.”
“Two layups. Two layups that could have changed the whole trajectory of the championship,” Staley mused on April 13, 11 days after an inch separated USC from the title game. “I mark it as it wasn’t meant to be. We came as close as you can come to getting to that elusive national championship game again, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“But it gives us a starting point to who we want to be and what we want to accomplish next year, and creating that margin of error every time that we step on the floor.”
There’s always the business of finishing a season, taking a few days to let everybody decompress and get away from the people with which they’ve spent every day of the last six months, letting the students get back to their classes and off-the-court lives. Staley held her end-of-season player meetings April 13-14 and is preparing for her busy summer that will see her first lead a Team USA squad in the AmeriCup and then prepare for the Olympics.
Staley expects everyone to return next season, although there’s no word on the team’s lone senior, Lele Grissett. Grissett suffered a season-ending injury during the SEC Tournament championship game and still has a year of eligibility remaining.
Staley said she will be happy with whatever route Grissett chooses and is finalizing the details for when she can bring in her four new players, a group of heralded recruits that was tabbed the country’s best recruiting class for the second time in three years. Between that and her myriad other duties, there isn’t a lot of time for reflection of two weeks ago.
Yet there is some time, and being that close will always be just that.
“It’s gotta hurt. When it hurts, it means a lot to you,” Staley said. “I particularly don’t like for young people to hurt that way, but it certainly makes you stronger. We don’t always get what we deserve.”
After reaching the Final Four three times in six years, winning six SEC Tournament championships and one national championship, expectations are elevated. Staley said it bluntly: anything less than that championship is a failure.
As it does with everything in her life, Staley’s hard upbringing plays into it.
“I grew up in a project. I don’t want to live in the projects anymore. Nothing against the projects, but I’m a little afraid of poverty,” said Staley, who is from Philadelphia. “But you need that. You need that experience to know what it feels like so you can work that much harder to avoid that. We need things that help us fuel what it is that we don’t want to feel that we experience.”
She knows Boston is probably still thinking about that layup. She also knows she stressed to her team that it could have been much worse, as bitter as the defeat was.
The Gamecocks were 2-2 in their final regular-season games, squandering an opportunity to win the SEC regular-season championship. Yet they responded.
“We could have tanked,” Staley said. “But we found enough fight in us to string some wins together at the end, win an SEC Tournament championship, win four games in an NCAA Tournament, put us in the Final Four, we lose on a last-second layup put-back. It doesn’t get any closer than that.”
Staley confirmed next year’s schedule will be tougher than this year’s original pre-pandemic schedule.
The Gamecocks will host Maryland and Connecticut while traveling to Duke and N.C. State. They will also be one of eight teams in the inaugural Battle IV Atlantis women’s tournament in the Bahamas, where they could face UConn, Oregon, Oklahoma and Syracuse.
Staley also said she was “talking to” Stanford about a potential home-and-home series, since the Cardinal are apparently already traveling to the East Coast at some point next year.