DALLAS — She sat by herself on the front row of the team bus for a moment, and gazed out of the large, glass window beside her in awe.
Five feet away, her South Carolina women’s basketball players trickled from the team hotel onto the bus one by one as hundreds of fans chanted their names and flashed homemade signs.
Dawn Staley whipped out her iPhone to document the scene — one until Sunday she had never experienced before.
“Gamecock Nation,” she tweeted. “Pretty special. Salute. One more.”
The “one more” is now no more. The Gamecocks have accomplished everything they set out to do this season, a mission that began back in November with one specific goal defined by laser focus all year long. Officially, they are national champions. Staley’s Gamecocks bested Mississippi State 67-55 on Sunday night in front of a sellout crowd at American Airlines Center in a highly anticipated SEC rematch — one that has now delivered the Gamecocks their first national title in program history.
"It's still unbelievable," Staley said, donning a championship hat on her head and the goal's net around her neck. "I don't know how to celebrate, I don't know how to act, I don't know what a national champion is supposed to look like. I know it feels incredible. It's a relief."
The Gamecocks tapped into their usual trio again to get the job done, with A'ja Wilson scoring a game-high 23 points, Allisha Gray adding 18 and Kaela Davis chipping in 10 to lead a USC attack that Staley said was centered around one theme: "paint dominance."
Staley stressed to her team early and often that this game was going to be won down low, and indeed the final statistics proved her right. USC (33-4) only attempted three 3-pointers and instead opted for closer, more efficient shots around the basket that were easier to make or had shorter rebounds if they were misses. The Gamecocks outscored the Bulldogs 42-20 in the paint throughout a game that was tied three times and saw just one lead change.
"We have to own the paint," Staley said. "Whether we get the ball to our post players or whether we drive it down somebody's throat — we don't discriminate."
Leading 36-26 at the half, USC held a comfortable advantage at the break that turned into a 14-point lead midway through the third quarter when the lead grew to 45-31. But in a two-minute span, the Bulldogs (34-5) strung together a 9-0 run and started to climb out of the hole, with USC’s double-digit lead dwindling down to just five.
The Gamecocks led 52-44 by the end of the third quarter, and with three minutes left in the fourth, had stretched the advantage back to 10 behind Wilson and Gray’s respective takeovers. Wilson scored eight of her 23 in the final period, and with one minute remaining, the lead was back to 14. The fans went bonkers, and that's when Gray knew — this one was over.
"Before the game, we talked and stuff and we were just having a little heart to heart," Gray said of a pregame conversation with best friend Wilson. "I was like, 'Aja, I've got you. I'm not going to let you lose this game.'"
The starters walked off the court and Wilson began to sob. She hugged Davis and put a towel over her head, overcome by the moment and taken aback by its magnitude. Gray started jumping up and down and couldn't stop. Assistant coach Fred Chmiel turned to the crowd and implored them to make some noise when the reserves entered the game. And as for Staley, with 20.1 seconds left on the clock, she gathered her four assistants in a deep hug and told them she loved them.
The final buzzer rang, the confetti fell and hats and T-shirts were handed out. A few minutes into the mayhem, Staley walked over to the bench to swap out her ruby red high heels for some black sneakers, and a few fans asked for a photo. She took her hat off of her head, put it back on backward and grinned ecstatically.
"You did it, girl!" one woman yelled.
"It won't be her last!" another shouted.
When it came time for the trophy celebration, Wilson was awarded the Final Four most outstanding player honor, Gray and Wilson made the All-Tournament team and Staley said exactly what she told reporters she would say Saturday afternoon if it was her team hoisting that trophy.
"God is all things. He's all things," she said. "This does not happen without him blessing our program, blessing our players and putting his hand on our program all year long."
Earlier in the afternoon, before a pregame meal of spaghetti, steak, salmon, mashed potatoes and bread, the team's hybrid chaplain/life coach Jack Easterby had written a poem for the Gamecocks about what it means to be champions — what it means to be great. He sent it to them and associate head coach Lisa Boyer read it aloud.
"I would hope that this win is a history changer and a little bit of a culture shift. It doesn’t matter who’s on your team or what the circumstances are," Davis said later. "It’s about heart. It’s who wants it and who’s going to show up in these moments. I’m glad it was us."