Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Welcome home, Dawn

Two and a half hours south from where she played out one of the most storied careers in the game, Dawn Staley returns, and the three-time Olympic gold medalist is bringing the No. 1 team in the nation with her.

Top-ranked South Carolina (9-0) meets Hampton (3-5) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Pirates gym.

Staley -- as decorated an athlete the University of Virginia has ever produced -- says she and Lady Pirates coach David Six "talked a few years ago when we played in the Virgin Islands and ever since then, we've been trying to find a date that works for both of us."

Hosting the best in the nation is an impressive feat for NCAA Tournament regular Hampton; just ask Kenny Brooks how difficult it is to get the best in the game to play at your house. Staley remembers what it's like from her days coaching Temple, where she elevated the Owls program to unprecedented heights. That would be six NCAA Tournament appearances, a conference title and  a first-ever national ranking.

"When I was at Temple, nobody really gave us the opportunity to play, I mean a high level basketball team," Staley said. "It goes back to being good for women's basketball to come here and play."

It's good for the Gamecocks, too, Staley noted, given the elite program Six has built at Hampton. The five-time MEAC champs earned a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and while this year's team lacks the experience of many of his former ones, Six didn't back down in the schedule department. Lots of coaches like to tout their nonconference slate as tough; the numbers back up Six any time he chooses to brag.

"It's a great game as far as RPI for us; they're a team that always goes to the NCAA Tournament," Staley said. "Some of his teams remind me of the ones I had at Temple. They're a dangerous team for us to play."

Speaking of dangerous . . . South Carolina has six wins by 20 points or more and a victory over Duke in Durham. The Gamecocks rank eighth in the nation in field goal percentage with an SEC-best mark of .492. The accuracy is not the product of one hot hand, but instead five Gamecocks shoot at least 50.0 percent from the field. Four South Carolina are on the Naismith Watch List of 50, and one of them, A'ja Wilso,n is the lone freshman to receive the honor. Fittingly, the team's motto is "One."

Staley is in her seventh season as head coach and says it's been a process to get here. "You've got to have a vision for your program and then you have to paint the picture of that vision by having players who believe in your vision, and that's what we've done well -- in our state of South Carolina and by having some of the best players in the country. You have to be in a conference where you get to measure yourself each and every game and get challenged. Once all that comes together, if you're successful, if you're lucky enough to be successful enough to win more basketball games than lose them, you can wind up where we are."

Every year South Carolina gets better under Staley. Holding the No. 1 spot in the AP poll since Nov. 24 is another milestone.

"We're right there where we envisioned," she said. "We've always been a blue collar basketball team. We built our reputation on playing hard defensively. Now we've got some talent that can play just as well on the other side of the ball. When it comes down to having success, you've got to have players who make plays. We've got some players who can help us make plays in multiple positions. You can't just have one. You've got to have them in multiple positions to have ones who create an advantage on both sides of the ball."

As for coming home, don't think Staley hasn't thought about it, even though Charlottesville is a good hike up I-64.

"It's always great to come back to a play where you had a lot of success," she said. "The state of Virginia has been tremendous for me and my career and to come back, it does bring back a little memory. But that was a long time ago and we're hoping to create that same success (Wednesday) night."

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