Staley, Gamecocks better prepared for Final Four experience

Staley, Gamecocks better prepared for Final Four experience

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Media Relations**

DALLAS — Dawn Staley won 112 basketball games as a college player at Virginia. She has won 391 as a college coach. She has been to the Final Four four times, three as a player and one as a head coach. 

She has never won it. 

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For one of the greatest players and coaches the game has ever seen, that hurts. And that's what drives her as she prepares South Carolina for its second Final Four in the past three years. 

"As I reflect on participating in the Final Fours, not being able to win a national championship is the thing that fuels me as a coach, you know, to check that box off," Staley said Thursday as her team prepares to face Stanford in the 2017 Final Four Friday night.

As a player, Staley led the University of Virginia to the Final Four in 1990, 1991 and 1992. The Cavaliers lost in the semi-finals in 1990 and '92, and lost in the finals in 1991. Staley's Gamecocks made it to the Final Four for the first time two years ago, losing in the semi-finals to Notre Dame.

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Of all the wins Staley has been a part of in her storied career, it's those losses that she remembers most.

"It's the losses that really sting," she said. "'90, '91 and '92 all were opportunities for us to win a national championship. But the last one was probably the hardest one.

"Fortunately, I've been around some great players to get us back at this point to compete for a national championship. Hopefully our day has come."

Two of Staley's players — juniors A'ja Wilson and Bianca Cuevas-Moore — have experienced the same bitterness of losing in the Final Four. They also lost last season in the Sweet 16. Staley expects them to convey that experience, that feeling to the rest of her team.

"What we've learned two years ago is probably what we learned throughout our entire coaching career, and just in basketball. The margin of error is so small, so small," Staley said. "I mean, it's hard getting here. It's very difficult getting to the third weekend of the NCAA tournament. For us, it's an uphill battle."

Wilson, a first-team All-American and finalist for National Player of the Year, is trying to teach her team what it's like to play in the Final Four, and hopefully how to accomplish their goals.

"It is just a different feeling, it really is," Wilson said. "I mean, when you got to play, you don't know if the next game is guaranteed, you don't take anything for granted.

"That's something I really want to tell my teammates. The biggest thing I've been preaching is, I don't want my teammates to feel the way I felt last year and the year before that. It's not a good feeling. I want to try my best to kind of get this team to not have that feeling, to have the opposite feeling of what I felt."

Staley believes her 31-4 team, which has battled back from adversity all season long, will be much better prepared for this Final Four experience.

"It helps when you have experience at the Final Four," she said. "We feel different as a coaching staff. We feel better prepared to know what is expected. We enjoyed it two years ago. We absolutely did.

"But when it's your first time, you know, you're seeing all the different moving parts, and you're trying to fit all of it in to make it work. Whereas now, we know what to expect. Although we're going to enjoy it, we're going to be better prepared for our players and our program, especially the ones that haven't experienced it."

To reach the finals, Staley will have to beat one of her mentors, legendary Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. VanDerveer's Stanford team beat Staley's Virginia team twice in the Final Four during Staley's playing days. She also coached Staley on the USA team that won the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Staley, who was named last month to be the next coach of the U.S. National Team, says the lessons she learned from VanDermeer are the "foundation of how I approach games."

VanDermeer calls Staley "extremely competitive."

"She's a competitive person, coach, player. She's very intelligent. She's very passionate about basketball," VanDermeer said. "I see all of these things, having coached her and known her for, I guess, about 30 years. … All these things contribute to her outstanding job as a coach at South Carolina and our future Olympic coach."

But the one thing that sticks out to Staley more than anything is that she has never beaten her former coach and mentor. She hopes to change that Friday night.

"I'm o-fer," Staley said. "I'm part of the 1,000 wins that she has. I'm one of the defeated teams in that total win category. I mean, she's a hard win. She's been in these situations a number of times, and she definitely uses her experience against us.

"We're hoping that Dallas brings us a little bit of different luck."