**Story and Photos by Jeff Owens**
DALLAS — Dawn Staley has always loved and appreciated Gamecock fans, who support her team like no other program in the country.
She repaid them Friday night by delivering South Carolina's first basketball national championship and just the fourth national title in school history.
And when it was all over, with thousands of Gamecock fans at American Airlines Center going crazy, Staley wanted to thank them again. And she did, walking past security and toward the grandstands, where fans lined up to hug her and thank her. And then she took more than a dozen fans down onto the floor to help her team celebrate its 67-55 victory over Mississippi State in the national championship game.
"It's a national championship, and we don't get too many of those, so it is fantastic," said Jeff Rogers, one of the thousands of Gamecock fans who were loud and boisterous and erupted when the final seconds ticked off.
"I am so proud of Dawn Staley and this program. She built this thing brick by brick and it's all about love. It's just amazing to see her connection with the fans and how she takes care of the fans, her faith. It's a wonderful thing to see."
Gamecocks fans traveled hundreds of miles and several hours to support Staley's team in its second Final Four and first national title game. Many drove from Columbia to Dallas, while others made the trip from Phoenix, where the men's team played in the Final Four Saturday night.
Many, like Rogers, were exhausted, but overjoyed with South Carolina's first national championship since Athletic Director Ray Tanner's baseball teams went back-to-back in 2010-2011.
"I'm so tired," said Rogers, a 1986 South Carolina graduate who attended the Final Four games in Phoenix and Dallas. "But it's worth it."
Laura J. Mattingly is a 1982 South Carolina graduate who works at Midlands Tech in Columbia. She is also a USC graduate student and left campus after her classes on Thursday and drove 14 hours by herself to Dallas, arriving just in time for Friday's semi-final game.
"This is terribly and wonderfully exciting," she said. "I am so happy I can't even explain it.
"I have been following the Lady Gamecocks since I came (to school). They are the dream team, the coach is awesome, the team is awesome, I am so proud of the girls."
Sandy Derrick and his wife drove 16 hours from Columbia. A Gamecock fan all his life, the 63-year-old Derrick was in Omaha when the Gamecocks won the College World Series in 2010 and now witnessed the women's basketball team win the 2017 national title.
"It's hard to even describe," he said. "… And with five starters coming back, we'll be playing in this game next year."
Morris Cregger, 84, has been waiting his whole life to see the men or women win a national championship. He and his wife, Sheila, traveled to New York to watch the men's team in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight and flew across country for the women's Elite Eight game in Stockton, Calif. They left Phoenix at 3 a.m. Sunday morning to be at the national championship game.
"I wouldn't haven't missed it for the world," he said. "I am so happy for Dawn and the girls. They just worked so hard."
Cregger attended a Final Four with a former coach many years ago because he was afraid he would never see his beloved Gamecocks make it that far.
"I said I wanted to wait for the Gamecocks to get there but I better go now because I may be dead before they get there," he said. "This is a dream come true for all of us."
Sheila Cregger graduated from South Carolina in 1978. She was in tears after the game and so hoarse she could barely talk.
"It's indescribable," she said. "We love basketball and we love Dawn Staley and Frank Martin and we are just so so happy for both of them. And we're particularly happy for the girls here. It's unbelievable. I just can't put into words how excited I am and how proud I am."
Genie Fogle, Jane Singh and Diane Bull traveled with a group of fans from South Carolina. As the team celebrated on the floor, they were waving a large "It's Great to be a Gamecock" banner.
"We remember the days when no one was in the stands and you could hear her talking to the players across the court from where we sat," Singh said. "Winning the national championship is unbelievable."
"We went to Stanford in 2012 and there were like four fans and we were two of them," Fogle said. "To see what they have done, my heart can hardly take it."
Gamecock fans were not only thrilled to win a national championship but impressed and proud of what Staley and her team accomplished, finishing the season at 33-4 and winning nine straight games in the postseason to capture the title.
"To fight through adversity and lose a major piece (center Alaina Coates) and still to be able to pull this off, this is history in the making," Ivan Earle of Columbia said. "This is an awesome time for the city of Columbia and the University of South Carolina to be playing in two Final Fours and to bring home a national championship. I think this sets the ground work for the future."
And, of course, no one was happier and prouder than University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, who went down onto the floor to congratulate coach Staley and her team and then thanked Gamecock fans as he walked back through the crowd.
"This coach, Dawn Staley, she said that's our goal, a national championship and a lot of us said, 'Whoa, that's a high bar,'" Pastides said. "But if she doesn't believe, the team won't, and if the team doesn't, the fans won't, and here we are, the culmination of a lot of hard work, great skill and unity of purpose."
That national championship means everything to Gamecock fans. But what does it mean to the university?
"It means a parade and probably some suspended classes," Pastides said. "That's what the students care about, they are already yelling that. But more importantly, I think it's another boost in our morale and self-confidence.
"But I hope no one thinks we're done, because this is the golden year of USC athletic and academics and we have a lot more to show."