February 26, 2009
STARKVILLE -- Dawn Staley is accustomed to excellence.
As a player at the University of Virginia, Staley was a three-time Kodak All-American (1990-92), a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year (1991-92), the NCAA tournament''s Most Outstanding Player (1991), and the Sports Illustrated Player of the Year (''91).
Oh, she also won three gold medals as a member of the United States'' Olympic women''s basketball team and was a member of the Women''s National Basketball Association All-Decade Team.
Staley''s goal when she took over as the new women''s basketball coach at South Carolina was to bring that same championship mind-set to Columbia, S.C.
The Gamecocks'' 10-15 overall record and 2-10 Southeastern Conference mark might not reflect it, but Staley said she has made progress in her first season as she attempts to help South Carolina return to the upper echelon of the SEC.
South Carolina will try to take a step in that direction at 7 tonight when it takes on Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum.
Coach Susan Walvius guided South Carolina to two of its best back-to-back seasons in program history in 2001-02 and 2002-03 when the Gamecocks won 25 and 23 games. In 2002-03, they advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
Since then, though, South Carolina has struggled to regain that footing. The Gamecocks won 18 games in 2006-07 and 16 games last season before Walvius left the school.
Enter Staley, who built Temple into an Atlantic 10 and a national power in eight seasons at the school. Staley won 172 games and led the Owls to six NCAA tournaments.
So why would a coach used to excellence want to leave an established program for a depressed one in one of the nation''s toughest conference''s?
For Staley, the decision was a no-brainer.
"As a competitor, you want to play where the best are playing so you can measure where you are and so you can see the things you need to work on," Staley said. "(Coaching in the SEC) means I have a platform to measure myself as a coach. Also, just to touch lives on a daily basis in an area or region of the country that is unfamiliar to me.
"My mission is not to do that just in Philadelphia. My mission is to be all across the world. Here is an opportunity to do that in Columbia. I am proud to have the platform to spread my story and spread the fact I have played the game a long time and help young people see the gam a little differently."
Staley admitted her players at Temple took to her message and philosophy a little quicker than the players at South Carolina have. She isn''t sure why, but she believes her teams at Temple were more experienced, which helped them transition to a new coach and higher expectations.
Staley''s goal is to have her current players embrace her higher expectations for the Gamecocks.
Season-ending injuries to seniors Demetress Adams (10.7 points per game) and Brionna Dickerson (13.4 ppg.), two of the team''s top three scorers, has prevented the program from making more progress, but Staley said the team is moving forward.
"It takes some time, and we have taken some losses for our players to really understand how we needed to play," Staley said. "It comes and goes to be quite honest. Once we get consistency with it we''ll get results in the win column. As a team, we have struggled with consistency and playing hard for 40 minutes every time we step on the floor. They really didn''t know what to expect coming into the season, or how hard they would have to work."
Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning has dealt with similar issues this season. The Lady Bulldogs (19-8, 6-6) have had more success, but the addition of three junior college players -- Chanel Mokango, Armelie Lumanu, and Rima Kalonda -- and a freshman and the absence of a senior leader (Marneshia Richard) has made this season a lesson in maturity.
Fanning said MSU has continued to grow this season, and she expects Staley to help South Carolina mature into a more competitive program.
"Her team is playing very hard and they are staying with it," Fanning said. "They are a quick, athletic team, and every game you see them getting better."
MSU is coming off an 82-68 loss at No. 13 Tennessee. Junior guard Alexis Rack paced the Lady Bulldogs with 24 points.
MSU committed only three turnovers, but it hit only one field goal in the final 6 minutes, 58 seconds and couldn''t hold a 64-62 lead late in the second half.
South Carolina has lost six of its 10 SEC games by 10 points or less. The Gamecocks are coming off an 82-66 loss to No. 15 Florida on Sunday.
For next season, Staley already has signed two top-rated guards, who national recruiting "experts" will come in and contribute next season.
An added year of experience for a team that has six underclassmen among its top seven players will help, but Staley her team''s lack of game experience isn''t going to make her change her plan for the Gamecocks.
Instead, she said she is going to push the Gamecocks even harder so they play just as hard as she did so they can take another step closer to achieving excellence.
"It has been on-the-job training for some of them," Staley said of her younger players this season. "When I look back, for the most part, they have done all they could do. When you''re up against experience there is no better way than to create your own experience."
The fans have caught on. South Carolina is averaging 2,765 fans in 14 home dates this season, which is seventh in the league.
Staley hopes her team''s style of play will help bring those fans back.
"The only way you know if things are moving in the right direction is if they come and see us play," Staley said. "I really don''t want to hear it from the people who haven''t see us play to say that we''re this or we''re that. I think to capitalize on the excitement is reasonable to achieve. I think people should come out and see the product on the floor. I think they will be proud to get behind their fellow Gamecocks."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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