**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Media Athletics**
Dawn Staley never aspired to be a college coach. She was perfectly happy playing in the WNBA and competing with the U.S. Olympic team.
But when Temple University, the Atlantic 10 school in her hometown of Philadelphia, came calling, Staley couldn't resist. There was one thing, one burning desire that drove her to take the job.
"Winning a national championship is the thing that fuels me as a coach," said Staley, who played in the Final Four three times as a player but never won the title, losing twice in the semi-finals and in 1991 finals.
While continuing to play in the WNBA, Staley turned Temple into an instant winner. The Owls won 19 games in her first season and went to the NCAA tournament six times in eight years, winning the Atlantic 10 championship three times and the conference tournament four times.
In eight years, Staley compiled a record of 172-80 and turned Temple into one of the top programs in the country.
But she could not accomplish her ultimate goal.
"We would get to the NCAA tournament, the first round, possibly the second round, but we always, lost in that first and second round. That was really frustrating," she said.
Staley knew that she had taken Temple as far as she could.
"At tournament time, we always got out-talented. We out-played people, but they out-talented us," she said.
She knew she had to go to a bigger school if she wanted to reach the Final Four and play for the national title.
"I thought making a coaching move to a bigger conference would allow our coaching staff to live out some dreams that we wanted as coaches, and that's to win a national championship," she said.
She found what she was looking for at South Carolina, an up-and-coming SEC school with the facilities and resources two win on a national level. Staley's parents are from South Carolina and she saw the state and region as a recruiting hotbed, one that could produce such players as two-time All-American A'ja Wilson.
"It's the platform that we needed to compete," she said. "We don't know if it's always going to work out that way, but I knew we had the platform.
"… It made this dream come true a little bit quicker."
Staley and her Gamecocks (32-4) will realize their dream Sunday, playing Mississippi State in the national finals.
Staley, whose team has won four straight SEC championships, led South Carolina to the Final Four for the second time in three years and, after beating Stanford Friday night, she will compete for the national championship for the first time as a coach.
She is finally realizing her dream.
"I wanted to be part of what's happening right now," she said.
At South Carolina, Staley has been able to recruit such elite players as A'ja Wilson, a two-time All-American and from nearby Hopkins, S.C. And transfers like Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, both All-ACC players who moved to South Carolina for the chance to reach the Final Four and possibly win a national championship.
Like Staley, they are in position to realize their dreams.
"I am blessed to be in this situation," Wilson said. "We work so hard during the season to get here and to finally be here it really is something special. I don’t think this feeling can be described in any words."
Davis called it "super, super surreal," adding, "It is satisfying to know that the decision I made is paying off.“
"Not many people even get to experience this," Gray added. "There is nothing like it."
While each of the Gamecock players know how special it would be to win the national championship, they want to win it mostly for their coach, the person who gave them this opportunity when she left Temple and took a chance on South Carolina.
“She has put in so much hard work and dedication into this game," Wilson said. "The least I can do is return the favor with a national championship. I think it would mean the world to me to give her something she has worked really hard on.”
"Coach Staley is a great coach," Gray said. "She’s basically a gym rat and ball is life for her. So to get her this national championship would be an unbelievable feeling.”