The University of South Carolina buildup to a glitzy, nationally televised prime-time women’s basketball showcase showdown with perennial power Connecticut started so modestly it’s laughable now.
The arena was two-thirds empty. The buzz?
A lost fly in the rafters.
But Monday night’s No. 1 Gamecocks vs. No. 2 Huskies game at sold-out Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., is the event of the season in women’s basketball — and probably has transcendent impact in South Carolina.
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The game might be bigger next season when the programs clash at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, where Dawn Staley’s undefeated Gamecocks this year in SEC home games have played to crowds ranging from 11,927 (Alabama) to 17,156 (Kentucky).
The fan following is unprecedented for any women’s team in any sport at any school in South Carolina.
It’s not a stretch to say these Gamecocks have empowered young women in a state where women and minorities have lagged behind the national average in politics, business and other stuff.
No doubt, football coaches and CEOs can learn something from the management style of Staley and her trusty assistants. Lessons will continue at the 2016 Olympics; Staley on Monday officially will be named an assistant coach on UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s staff for the Rio de Janeiro games.
Staley, 44, and her Gamecocks have changed the sports-watching habits of South Carolinians. People who never stuck with a women’s basketball game on TV before last season know the names of Tiffany Mitchell, Aleighsa Welch and A’ja Wilson.
Even fans who don’t care for South Carolina football like this team.
We haven’t seen anything yet. The Gamecocks are locked in to hosting first-round NCAA tournament games this March, the first steps in a projected run to the Final Four in Tampa, Fla.
But the last time South Carolina played UConn, in December of 2008 during Staley’s first season as Gamecocks head coach, there was little interest. Only 5,113 people showed up at Colonial Life Arena to watch Auriemma’s powerhouse Huskies roll to a 77-48 victory.
The game was scheduled as a homecoming favor for UConn’s Kalana Greene, a star guard from Timberland High School in St. Stephen.
Greene’s college decision was easy. On her way to the WNBA, she helped UConn win two of its nine national championships under Auriemma.
Her second choice was easy, too.
It hasn’t been easy for Staley, building an elite program from nothing. And yet this was the plan all along. The Gamecocks had failed to reach the NCAA tournament five years in a row when former athletic director Eric Hyman went looking for a head coach in 2008. Staley made terrific sense: North Philadelphia native, star player at Virginia, Olympian, WNBA star, overachieving head coach at Temple.
“Staley might be the greatest point guard in women’s basketball history,” Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Smallwood wrote. “A straight-A student of the game, she was perfectly groomed and suited to become a leader and a teacher of it.”
Still, some eyebrows were raised when Hyman gave Staley a $650,000 per year contract to start, more than baseball coach Ray Tanner was making ($345,000).
Ohio State came calling in 2013. To convince Staley to stay at South Carolina, Tanner, by then the athletic director, offered a three-year extension at $850,000 per season with guaranteed $25,000 bumps each year.
Now it seems like a good investment. Staley has branded the Gamecocks logo on positive and nontraditional sports-publicity streams that flow from ESPN’s flagship “SportsCenter” to salons to small-town playgrounds.
The few fans who have paid attention all along know that a talent-packed roster, including eight players from South Carolina, wasn’t built in a day. The modest beginning was Welch, a Gamecocks senior and Goose Creek High School graduate. When she signed, Staley was ecstatic about landing her first in-state prospect.
“Seeing what (football) Coach (Steve) Spurrier has done in our state with his program, we look forward to building our success the same way,” Staley said.
Four years later, Staley’s Gamecocks are preparing for a game against Connecticut as some of the most influential women in South Carolina.