**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by SC Media Relations**
DALLAS — When Dawn Staley first saw women playing basketball, she knew as a little girl what she wanted to do with her life. And she knew what her ultimate goal would be.
"National championship games and Olympics. Those were the things that I held near and dear to me when I was growing up, because those are the things that I wanted. That's what I saw. That's what I was shooting for," Staley said.
Stalely won a gold medal as a player on the 1996 US Olympic team. But she reached the Final Four three teams as a player at Virginia without winning the national championship, losing in the semi-finals twice and in the 1991 finals.
"When I couldn't get it done in college, I thought that was it," Staley said.
A former WNBA star and hall-of-fame player, Staley never wanted to be a college coach. But at the urging of former Temple Athletic Director Dave O'Brien, she agreed to give it a try for one reason — the chance to one day win a national championship.
"(He) saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," Staley said.
After eight years at Temple — and six NCAA Tournament appearances — Staley made another life-changing decision, taking over the program at South Carolina. It was the move that allowed her to finally reach the pinnacle of her career.
She accomplished her ultimate goal Sunday night, leading South Carolina to its first national championship with a 67-55 victory over SEC rival Mississippi State.
"I really can't see myself doing anything other than what I'm doing, impacting the lives of young people, and also being able to check this box off in my career," she said.
As the Gamecocks and their fans reveled in the school's first basketball national championship Sunday night, they celebrated not just for themselves, but for their legendary coach.
"It’s amazing because she has all these accomplishments, everything under her belt except this," freshman guard Tyasha Harris said. "We accomplished making it to the championship game and now we accomplished winning it, and it’s great to help her (reach these) accolades."
"What she does for the community, the school and of course the team is everything," said guard Kaela Davis, who transferred to South Carolina from Georgia Tech. "It’s hard to put into words everything that she does. For us and the team, it means a ton to be able to do this for her.”
In the past nine years, Staley has built South Carolina into a national power, a program that has won 25 or more games six straight seasons and 33 or more the past three. She has led South Carolina to four straight SEC championships, to the Sweet 16 four times, the Final Four twice, and finally, to the national championship. On Sunday, she became just the second woman to both play and serve as a head coach in the national championship game.
Her story is one of perseverance and never giving up on your goals. It's a story she hopes will help other players, coaches and athletes keep chasing their dreams.
"I want people to know that just because something takes a long time, I mean, you have to have patience, you have to persevere, stay with it. If something is a goal of yours to accomplish, you don't give up on it," she said.
"I never gave up on winning a national championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like. I'm just so happy that I get a chance to share it with so many different people in my coaching, basketball family tree. Coaches, former players, mentors, everybody, everybody."
And she will share it with the greatest fan base in the country, one that has grown right along with Staley's program. South Carolina has led the nation in attendance the past three years, filling Colonial Life Arena and supporting her program every step of the way.
Thousands of Gamecock fans were in Dallas Sunday night to watch Staley and her team win the national championship, and thousands more will pack Colonial Life Arena in Columbia Monday to celebrate. Staley won the title not only for herself and her team, but for those loyal fans.
"South Carolina is a place in which they love their sports. They love the University of South Carolina, they love winners," she said.
"Obviously if you start winning, and they start believing in your program, they're going to come. (Our) fans have painted a picture of what a national champion looks like. I can't thank them enough. I can't wait to get home to share this moment with them."