Columbia, S.C – South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley rounded the corner from Laurel Street onto Main Street on Sunday riding atop a huge motorhome. The sight that met her eyes as she looked down Main was something she's been waiting nine years for.
From the intersection of Laurel and Main all the way to the Statehouse six blocks away, fans lined both sides of the street, ready to celebrate South Carolina's national championship with the team and its staff.
Exactly one week before in Dallas, Staley and the Gamecocks knocked off Mississippi State in an All-SEC final to capture the first national title in program history. It's been a long wait for Staley on a personal level as she played in three Final Fours as a player at Virginia, but fell short of the ultimate goal every time.
Standing on the steps of the Statehouse on a picture-perfect day, Staley still had on the net she cut down back in Dallas wrapped around her neck. The net-lace, as she calls it, has been with Staley in every public appearance since defeating the Lady Bulldogs, including when she threw out the first pitch at a South Carolina baseball game on Saturday.
Standing on a podium in front of a large crowd filled with fans proudly wearing national championship gear, Staley found herself looking back on the long, difficult journey.
"It's a moment of reflection for me as a coach, as a teammate, as someone who's played in so many Final Fours and came up short (and) to my former players at Temple and the University of South Carolina," Staley said. "They're the ones that believed in this well before we even had a legitimate shot at winning a national championship."
Staley took time to thank the fans who had been with the program over the years. The Gamecocks have led the nation for three straight years in total attendance. Just five years ago that idea would be incomprehensible, and even more so nine years ago when Staley became head coach. She remembers how it felt to walk out on the court to a few hundred fans, which is a reason why she now spends so much time interacting with fans on social media and in person.
"It was person by person spreading the news about creating this environment for our players, and when you've done that, we win national championships," Staley told the crowd.
Michael Sullivan has been there since the beginning. A huge Staley fan from her time in the WNBA, Sullivan has not missed a South Carolina home game since she was hired. He was there for the 10-win season in Staley's inaugural campaign, and you can bet he was there at American Airlines Center to watch the Gamecocks stand alone on top of the college basketball world.
"I've been on cloud nine for the whole week," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he made an effort to attend more road games this season because he had a feeling that this could be a special year. As he stood watching the women's basketball team make the trek through the heart of downtown Columbia, it was a dream come true.
All season long the talk in women's college basketball was Connecticut and it's record-long winning streak. Mississippi State ended the 111-game streak in the national semifinals, opening the door for a new kid on the block.
The Gamecocks weren't going to let it slip away.
"This is fantastic not just for South Carolina, but for women's basketball," Sullivan said. "The storyline in women's basketball every year has been 'UConn, UConn, UConn.' Now we have a brand new champion. It's so fitting that the team with the largest fan base in the nation brings home the title."
South Carolina made the Final Four two seasons ago, but the Gamecocks lost to Notre Dame by a single point and were forced to watch the Irish celebrate. It was even tougher a season ago when the No. 1 seeded Gamecocks were upset by Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen.
After that difficult loss, Staley received a message from several friends and family that stuck with her all throughout the 2016-17 season.
"What's delayed is not denied," Staley recalled.
The long wait on a title is over for Staley and South Carolina. The only remaining question is how long will Staley keep her net-lace on?
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth**