As South Carolina and UConn prepare to face off for a National Championship tomorrow that few foresaw, the stage is set for the battle of tradition versus the growth of the game.
The Gamecocks have won one championship, in 2017, and been to the Final Four four times. The Huskies have won 11 titles. Neither team has lost in a championship game, but both coaches say the matchup will be on an even playing field.
“I think we’re going to duke it out,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We can talk about the numbers, but the numbers give them no edge. The numbers aren’t going to give us an edge. Our season, the great season that we’ve had, it’s not going to give us an edge tomorrow. We’ve got to play it.”
Staley said the team is not focused on past tournaments right now – just the game in front of them.
“You can’t go into games thinking that way,” she said. “You’ve got to play. And we’re going to play off of this year. We’re not going to play their history.”
UConn coach Geno Ariemma said both his and Staley’s teams have a great chance to win a national championship. He called the fellow Philadelphia native exacting and demanding of athletes, just as he has been known.
“The Philly part maybe is just….we have this inferiority complex that we have to prove to everybody that we’re smarter and tougher and better than everybody else,” Auriemma said. “I think all of us from that area carry that around. We know everything about everything. We’re smarter than you are. We’re tougher than you are.”
In the first semifinal Friday the Gamecocks, who were ranked No. 1 all season long, easily outran Louisville 72-59. The second-seeded Huskies then outlasted top seed Stanford, 63-58, after an injury-riddled season and their highest number of losses – and their lowest ranking – in years.
The Championship game will mark the second time this season that the two teams have met, as South Carolina beat UConn soundly, 73-57, in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in November.
Staley said her team would review that game to remind them of the good things they did to win.
“We’ll look at it just probably to get our players’ juices flowing a little bit to see this is what we did,” she said. “This is the kind of effort and more that it’s going to take to basically dethrone Connecticut and all the things that they’ve done and the incredible percentage of winning when they’re in a National Championship game.”
Auriemma likened the Huskies’ up-and-down free throw shooting to their vacillating season, which saw them lose five games and fall out of the AP top 10 for the first time in 17 years.
“I don’t think when we got on the plane to come out here, anybody in America thought we were the best team,” he said. “But you don’t have to be the best team for a long time; you just have to be the best team for 40 minutes, or play the best for 40 minutes.”
The Championship game tips at 7 p.m. CT on ESPN.
Staley on whether or not she represents younger coaches:
“I think our future is bright. I think there are a lot of young, bright coaches out there. And here’s where I have to put it back on you all. You got to go find the stories because they are out there. We just tend to go to the ones that always have been in our game a long time. Obviously, you go there because they are historians in our game. I think we — I’m not one of them. I’m not Tara. I’m not Geno. I just think we need to make people aware and make the media aware of some of the young coaches out there, i.e., that’s why I gave out pieces of the net so you’ll get to know who these coaches are and why I chose them.
There are a lot of young coaches who – and the landscape of the coaching is changing. I think Black coaches are getting more jobs now, more Power Five jobs. They have to do well because we don’t really get recycled in other head coaching positions. I do think we need to bring awareness of long-time assistant coaches who haven’t gotten an opportunity to head women’s basketball programs. We also have to talk about Black men. They don’t get opportunities, and they’ve been in our game a really long time. It’s only in the assistant coaches role. I think we just have to open up and find out who these great coaching minds are because there’s room for everybody.
I’m a Black woman, so I kind of view it through a Black woman’s eyes and sight, and it’s not anything against any other races, but I see. I’m an anomaly. I got into coaching, and I had no coaching experience. Somebody took a chance on me because of me being a player. There were much more experienced coaches back in 2000 that could have got the Temple job.”
Staley on what keeps her going as a coach, and whether she considers her legacy greater as a player, or a coach:
“That’s a good question. I’m a point guard. I’ve always looked at the game differently than a shooting guard or a post player. I’ve always been able to see the big picture, and I’ve carried that. It doesn’t matter if it’s basketball or if it’s just life. I’m a point guard, so we’re trained to see it all. We’re trained to see the big picture.
Then my people skills is one that I just try to meet people where they are. Not be judgmental. Just meet them where they are. Then I talk to them to figure out what they want, and then we figure out a plan to make that work. Sometimes when you work with young people, you let them talk. I’m not telling them what to do. I’m just listening to them.
Then they’ll start asking questions. When they start asking questions, that’s when you can really move the chain. So I’ve done that with teams that I’ve played as a point guard, and I’ve found my second skin in coaching.
Am I a better coach than I am a player? God. That’s a good question. I’m probably a better coach. Probably a better coach. I say that because I’ve had a longer career as a coach. That’s one.
Two, I think my impact is far. Like, I can make more of an impact as a coach than I did as a player. So that’s your answer. (Laughing).”
Staley on her approach to coaching:
“And then when I got into coaching, my number one thing was – my number one thing was giving my players an incredible experience. Because at Temple, you can say you want to win a National Championship, but you don’t really know what you’re saying. You don’t even know what the competition is. You don’t even know – I wasn’t thinking about mid-major, the Power Five. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about how I felt after my four years of college and what it’s done for me, and I wanted to do it in a way to create a winning environment. Equipping our players with life lessons through playing the sport.”
“I would not be as successful as I am if I did not play sports because I learned all of it. I learned how to be a good friend. I learned how to work hard. I learned about what’s important. I learned to prioritize. I learned — I probably learned that there is more to life than basketball because I was all basketball. And from those experiences and then when you win, it makes you more believable, and it makes the players believe in what they put into that winning.”
“I have two people on our staff that were a part of my first recruiting class. My players are like my best friends now. It’s that type of relationship. They’re really good at what they do. They’re great at what they do. I’m not a gimmie coach. Like, be what you’re great at, like, what you’re really great at. And no, I didn’t imagine that.”
“Then when I started just being into coaching, I wanted to win. I wanted to win the National Championship. That’s why I decided to move from Temple to South Carolina because we kept losing in the first and second rounds. And I’m just – my competitive juices said I had to get somewhere to where we can out-talent people versus outwork them. Because once you try to outwork them and they have much more talent than you do, you’re going to end up losing in the first and second rounds. It’s hard to get out of the first and second round without having talent.”
Auriemma on “where are the young coaches?”:
“There’s a lot of experienced coaches out there, right? And maybe we’ve been so good for so long we’ve overshadowed some of the good, young coaches, and I think that’s happened a little bit.”
“But I do think there are a lot of really good young coaches that just haven’t had the space yet to grow in, and I think you’re starting to see — I think all those upsets that happened this year in the NCAA Tournament, I don’t know for sure, but that was a lot of young coaches coaching those teams that went on the road and beat good teams on the road.”
“So they just need a little more time. I’m sure athletic directors need to be a little more patient. I think athletic directors a lot of times do a horrible job of hiring the right coaches for their school. They just look at somebody and look at their credentials and say, hey, yeah, that looks good without really, really digging in deep.”
“I think as that gets better and space becomes more available — you know, if I left UConn tomorrow, some 60-year-old isn’t going to get the job. It’s going to be a young coach who is really good, who really knows what they’re doing, and is going to come in and hopefully keep us exactly where we are right now, if not better. I think that’s probably the case everywhere.”
Auriemma on the struggles of this season, and what he’s learned:
“Maybe every coach goes through this at some point, but for the longest time, I think what made us successful was I thought that I had the ability to bring any kid into my program and make them into exactly what I wanted them to be. As each year has gone by, they started to see the fallacy in that. Not that I have not still tried to do that, but I think this year more than any other year, it’s — I think it’s hit me more than ever before that you really can’t change people that don’t want to change. And those that do, you’re going to have a huge impact on them.”
“You can’t change the team that’s in front of you. No matter how much you try, sometimes you just can’t. I used to get real frustrated at why can’t I change this? Because of circumstances, I think this year I’ve more times just thrown my hands up and said it is what it is and let’s deal with it and let’s move on and see what happens. It hasn’t made me any less neurotic or anything like that or paranoid about losing. I still have my assistants going, you know, we’re doing a lot of really good things. I’m, like, yeah, name one. Because I refuse to see the good things that we’re doing. I already know what they are.”
“I always feel like my job as a coach is to only see the things that could help us lose. So if every single day I’m attacking those things that can help us lose, I don’t have it in me to see the ten things we’re doing that are great that are helping us win. All I care about is if I don’t fix these things, we’re going to lose. That’s a lousy way to live too, man. (Laughing). That’s a lousy way to live, but it works for me. Wouldn’t work for somebody else, I don’t think.”