Sporting News Women’s College Basketball Coach of the Year: Dawn Staley stays in the moment for No. 1 South Carolina

Even the greatest basketball coaches need to take a moment. 

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had hers with four seconds remaining in the SEC tournament semifinals on March 9. 

Tennessee led 73-71 with two free throws coming – and it looked like the Gamecocks’ perfect season would end. Staley briefly pivoted toward the post-game speech and thought to herself: “Where do we go from here?” 

“Even though the ultimate goal was still in front of us, you really think about how we move forward in that moment,” Staley told Sporting News. “All that flashed in front of me, in that moment. Then, she missed the first one, then I’m like, ‘Wait a second.’” 

Staley recites the rest of the sequence as it unfolded. Tennessee missed both free throws, MiLaysia Fulwiley advanced the ball to the front-court, and the Gamecocks reset during an official’s timeout. Then, Kamilla Cardoso  – a 6-7 center – banked in an uncontested 3-pointer for a 74-73 victory. That was Cardoso’s first 3-pointer with the Gamecocks – yet another unfathomable layer to that moment.

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“I’ve played in a lot of games and coached in a lot of games, and I don’t think I’ve been a part of a buzzer-beater quite like that,” Staley said. “To be down, to be undefeated, to be that open – all of it – all of it was quite incredible how it unfolded.” 

That is another reason why South Carolina is 32-0 heading into the most-anticipated NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament ever. Staley, who has mastered those moments time and again, is Sporting News’ choice as Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year. 

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Dawn Staley wins Sporting News Coach of the Year

Staley remembered the same lessons she teaches her players about staying in the moment – wherever that may be – in those final seconds against Tennessee. 

This season that was everywhere. Notre Dame in Paris on Nov. 6. Utah in the Hall of Fame Showcase in Uncasville, Conn., on Dec. 10. LSU in Baton Rouge, La. in front of the “ESPN College GameDay” spotlight on Jan. 25. UConn in a “trap game” on Feb. 11 before a road trip to Tennessee four days later. 

The Gamecocks won all of those games. 

South Carolina does not lose often under Staley. The Gamecocks are 103-3 the last three years. The last regular-season loss was Dec. 30, 2021 against Missouri. The last SEC tournament loss was on March 6, 2022 against Kentucky. The last loss was the 77-73 loss to Iowa in last year’s Final Four. 

“We don’t look ahead,” Staley said. “We just really stay in the moment. We’ve gotten players that buy into the moment. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s worked out for us that I’m fortunate to have teams that stay right in the moment no matter what.” 

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Staley also has a team with incredible scoring depth. The Gamecocks have seven players who have scored eight points per game or more heading into the tournament. That starts with Cardoso (14.0 ppg.) and Fulwiley (11.8 ppg.), but Te-Hina Paopao (11.1 ppg.), Ashlyn Watkins (9.7 ppg.), Bree Hall (9.7 ppg.), Chloe Kitts (9.2 ppg.) and Raven Johnson (8.1 ppg.) are part of that rotation. 

“When you have five players out there that are threats to score and two or three of them are 3-point shooters, it keeps your floor spaced out and keeps people pretty honest,” Staley said. “We haven’t had that. I haven’t had that in my career as a coach, and this is my 24th year. I’ve had some really great basketball teams, but none as offensively balanced as this one.” 

That was enough to beat LSU 79-72 in the SEC championship game on March 10, which turned into another coaching moment for Staley. Both benches cleared late in the game, and Cardoso shoved LSU guard Flau’jae Johnson to the ground. Cardoso is suspended for the first game of the NCAA Tournament. Staley handled that moment with poise in the ESPN post-game interview when she said, “I just want to apologize for us being a part in that. Because that’s not who we are and that’s not what we’re about.” 

Undefeated Women’s NCAA Champions
Team Record
UConn (2016) 38-0
UConn (2014) 40-0
Baylor (2012) 40-0
UConn (2010) 39-0
UConn (2009) 39-0
UConn (2002) 39-0
Tennessee (1998) 39-0
UConn (1995) 35-0
Texas (1986) 34-0

Then, Staley took that lesson to her team behind closed locker-room doors. Cardoso apologized immediately, but Staley took that time for self-reflection, too. 

“I know it was a great teaching moment and a great lesson and we all can learn, me as a coach, just having to talk about it,” Staley said. “You really do talk about how you don’t want to leave the bench, how you don’t want to let people get under your skin, how you want to handle physical play and how we don’t want to retaliate or initiate. However you want to look at it will help make me a better coach and navigate and move forward off it.” 

Staley – who played in a national championship game at Virginia, won three Olympic gold medals as a player, helped usher in the WNBA and has won two national titles at South Carolina – is always looking for ways to improve. 

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That is part of a responsibility she feels to the national championship powerhouse at South Carolina. 

“For me, I told our fans last night that I’m honored we get to play for them, that they chose us to be their team because they’re knowledgeable,” Staley said. “They are complimentary of other great teams and great players, but ultimately they want us to win.” 

That’s why Cardoso’s buzzer-beater against Tennessee will never get old. Watch the replay again. Yep, that’s Staley sprinting toward half-court once the shot goes in. Those are always the best moments. 

“If that doesn’t give you a rise you’re not human, quite honestly,” Staley said. “I’m not even going to say that you gotta be a sports fan. You’re not human. This could have been your first game witnessing it – your first basketball game – and that doesn’t charge you up to keep coming? Seriously?”

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