South Carolina women's basketball: Was 2024 Dawn Staley's best coaching job?

On3 imageby:Chris Wellbaum04/11/24


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After leading South Carolina to an undefeated national championship, it’s worth asking if this was Dawn Staley’s best coaching job.

After all, South Carolina lost all five starters from last season plus its top reserve. Five of them were WNBA draft picks.

To be able to reformulate the team – from new players to new positions to new roles – without dropping a single game is remarkable. Staley was named national coach of the year for the third straight season, and it was certainly the best coaching job of the three. 

But let me tell you about the 2011-12 season. 

That year the Gamecocks made their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Staley and advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating Purdue on its home court in the second round. 

That was also the team that knocked off Tennessee in Knoxville, ending a 40-game, 32-year losing streak to the Lady Vols (it was also Tennessee’s first home conference loss in four years). South Carolina trailed 57-50 with five minutes left in the game but finished on a 14-3 run.

South Carolina was led by “The Three Eeshas,” leading soccer Markeshia Grant, Ieasia Walker, and senior La’Keisha Sutton. Grant was 5-6, the other two were 5-8. 

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South Carolina’s starting frontline had 5-9 guard Courtney Newton at power forward 6-1 forward Charenee Stephens in the middle. Their backups were a pair of 6-0 forwards, Ashley Bruner and freshman Aleighsa Welch.

You’re probably thinking if they were that undersized they must shoot a lot of threes land play five-out like Arkansas. Nope. A Dawn Staley team is always going to play inside out.

Grant averaged 11.1 points and was the only player who hit over 30% of her threes, and she only shot 36.4% and made 64 threes. Sutton, the team’s clear leader, averaged 10.6 points on 38.4% shooting and had more turnovers than assists.

Newton was once an athletic scoring guard, but three torn ACLs and numerous concussions meant she could barely run anymore (and everyone held their breath every time she hit the floor, which was a lot). She got by on grit and that fit in well on this team of misfits.

Grant was a juco transfer. Bruner was the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma, but couldn’t even get an offer from the hometown Sooners. Stephens and Welch had to battle posts four, five, or six inches taller than they were. Tina Roy was a freshman sharpshooter who shot 25% on threes and 29% overall.

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And they were led by Sutton, a player who couldn’t shoot particularly well, or run the point especially, and was too small to guard other shooting guards. All she did was win basketball games by her force of will.

And Staley led that ragtag group to the Sweet 16. How many of those players would even make South Carolina’s roster now? Only Welch, Roy, and Elem Ibiam were still around in 2014 when the Gamecocks won their first SEC regular-season championship.

But they did lay the groundwork for the program’s culture that exists to this day. The 2012 team’s theme was “We All We Got, We All We Need,” a chant that still popped up before games this postseason.

The other common thread between 2012 and 2024 is that Staley took a diverse group of players and got them to buy into a common goal. They became better as a whole and they won a lot of games.

That is arguably more impressive than what happened this season.

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