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We are used to seeing Dawn Staley win. We're less familiar with seeing South Carolina's coach become emotional, but that's exactly what we got as the final seconds ticked off the clock during Sunday's NCAA women's championship game.

Whether it was eclipsing the expectations of many college basketball watchers who thought the team would be good -- but not this good -- or finally getting over the hump of delivering an undefeated season, the tears flowed during Staley's postgame interview, just minutes after the Gamecocks' 87-75 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes secured a 38-0 season and a championship.

"I didn't want what happened last year to happen this year," Staley said postgame. After all, it was the Gamecocks who took an undefeated record into the 2023 Final Four, only to be dispatched in a 77-73 loss by Caitlin Clark and these same Hawkeyes. Having a team be perfect, or perfect enough, and falling short of the chance to play for a championship was devastating. "They weren't going to be denied," Staley said as she began to gather her composure. 

"I had a little bit of PTSD," Staley said. "I mean, it's heavy, it's heavy. You carry the burden of every single one of your players, all the coaches and staff members that put so much into our team. And it's a heavy load to be undefeated, to finish the job." 

Staley worked hard to deal with her emotions in real time so she could focus on the task at hand. Iowa came out with an impressive 10-0 run to start the game, but, eventually, the Gamecocks chipped away, drew even, and fended off Iowa's runs before ultimately separating themselves from the Hawkeyes.

Mission accomplished. 

As much as it might have seemed like this was a team of destiny, the road to being the last team standing took as much hard work as it did hard conversations. 

For Staley, that meant trusting that while her team may have been young and naive, they knew what it would take to win. The 53-year-old coach required a different type of stamina to deal with her roster this year. She said often how "uncomfortably comfortable" this season was for the coaching staff, but added that it was those experiences that guided them.

"It's built through trusting the process," she said. "It's built through really high-level communication, some that they may not like all the time, but it's truth. We also want them to talk to us about what they're feeling and seeing so we can understand them and how they operate in that space."

Over time, the process worked not only for the coaching staff, but also for the players to better communicate with each other. As Iowa fought to reduce South Carolina's lead from 14 points down to five points within the last five minutes of the game, Staley saw the culmination of what she and her staff had worked so hard to manifest -- players coming together, holding each other accountable. During a timeout, her bench players shared tips and words of encouragement to the players on the court. 

"It's pretty cool when they can hold each other accountable, and they can also best each other with encouragement," Staley said. 

Her players are who they are because of Staley and the values she holds high. That includes recruiting players she believes value and respect their families. 

"Aside from their talent, a prerequisite of us actually recruiting a young lady is their relationship with their parents because if they respect their parents, they're going to respect us. If they don't respect their parents, we don't have a shot," Staley said Sunday. 

"Fortunately, we have some really great parents who are -- they're in their daughter's lives every single day, so they're in our lives every single day. And we don't mind because all of us want the same thing. We want them to be incredibly successful. I'm fortunate as a coach to have that relationship with our parents." 

And her support of her players and their families don't end once their playing days are over. Staley has been a positive influence on Saniya Rivers, even after she transferred from South Carolina to NC State. 

And truly, Staley pours into women's basketball in a way that's unparalleled. She made sure to thank Clark for all she's done for women's basketball and all she will do moving forward. 

"Her shoulders were heavy ... getting a lot of eyeballs on our game. And sometimes as a young person, it can be a bit much, but I thought she handled it with class," Staley said during some of her postgame remarks. "I hope that every step of the ladder of success that she goes, she's able to elevate whatever room she's in." 

Staley went on to proclaim Clark one of the GOATs of women's basketball, and later Clark would be complimentary of Staley and the growing legacy of the Gamecocks' program. "She's someone I respect so much. I respect what she's done for South Carolina. I respect what she did as a player for our game," Clark said. "Any time you can get the praises of her is pretty special, so it means a lot." 

And Staley does all that she does because she loves the game for what is and what it's meant in her life. "Not everybody has an escape," Staley told CBS Sports earlier this year. "My escape hatch happens to be my passion life."

Staley continues to lead her own way. It's a style that fosters deep connections with her players, past and present, as 2022 NCAA champion Aliyah Boston, now a member of the Indiana Fever, was one of the first to literally lift Staley up when her former coach became so emotional she could not stand. Current players feel the same way.

"Since the first day I got to South Carolina, she's been working so hard to get me ready and prepared for moments like this," said Kamilla Cardoso, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, who will be entering this year's WNBA Draft. "She's, like, an inspiration for me, and a lot of young girls out there. I'm just so thankful to have her as a coach. She's the best in the business, you already know." 

Coach Staley has rapidly grown her legacy and is respected by players and her peers alike. Staley won her third consecutive WBCA Coach of the Year award, her fourth in the last five years. 

Despite Staley sitting on top of the mountain, it's hard to see this as being the pinnacle for her. Sure, winning her third title ties her with Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and puts her within one of Kim Mulkey, who has a combined four at Baylor and LSU. But does Staley need to surpass Pat Summit's eight titles or Geno Auriemma's 11 championships to be the greatest collegiate women's basketball coach of all time?


Coaches and players alike have already said in so many words that Staley will be considered one of the game's all-time greats. And whatever the championship tally reads won't change that.