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South Carolina’s Dawn Staley wins third national title as Gamecocks down Clark, Iowa – The Mercury News

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By TOM WITHERS (AP Sports Writer)

CLEVELAND (AP) — With the championship secured, Dawn Staley released a year’s worth of pent-up frustration and pain.

The tears flowed freely. The burden lifted.

South Carolina got past Caitlin Clark this time.

A year after their perfect season crashed with a semifinal loss to the sensational Clark in the Final Four, the Gamecocks and Staley, their fiery and fierce coach, finished the job with an 87-75 win over Iowa in the NCAA championship on Sunday.

This wasn’t necessarily about revenge, although South Carolina guard Raven Johnson dubbed this season “The Revenge Tour,” it was incredibly satisfying for South Carolina (38-0), which became just the 10th team in history to finish undefeated.

“It was emotional for me because of how it ended last year,” said Staley, who sat at the postgame dais with a net draped around her neck and the NCAA title trophy within reach. “I’ll leave that there.”

The greatest season in women’s college basketball — highlighted by Clark’s rampage of the record books, young stars and unprecedented TV ratings — was dominated by one team: South Carolina stood alone.

With five new starters, the Gamecocks were head and shoulders better than every other team in the country. They credited Staley, their 5-foot-5 coach, now on a short list with the game’s iconic leaders, with taking them to the top.

“We have the best coach in the country, in the nation, in the whole wide world,” Johnson said.

Staley’s third title and second in three years made her just the fifth coach to win three, joining Geno Auriemma (11), Pat Summitt (8), Kim Mulkey (4) and Tara VanDerveer (3). Beyond that, Staley entered an even more select club with Auriemma, Summitt, Mulkey and Jody Conradt as the only coaches to go unbeaten.

Not bad for a former All-American guard who went 0-3 in the Final Four at Virginia.

“The best in the business,” said Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso, named the tournament’s most outstanding player after a 15-point, 17-rebound final.

The 53-year-old Staley doesn’t like to call herself coach, preferring “dream merchant” as her mission is to pave the path for her players — on and off the court. The Gamecocks adore her as was evidenced by the affection they showed her following the game.

Cardoso, who left her family in Brazil at 15 to play in the U.S., broke down when talking about Staley.

“She’s just like a family for me, a family away from home,” Cardoso said, choking up. “I’m just so thankful to have her.”

“She’s like a mom,” Johnson said. “I go to her about everything. I could joke around with her. I could do anything. It’s a home-away-from-home feeling.”

Staley of course wanted this title for this year’s team. She wanted it just as badly for South Carolina’s beloved “Freshies” — Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson — who came up short a year ago at the hands of Clark.

“I wasn’t going to allow what I felt happened to us last year happen this year,” she said, referring to some calls that went Clark’s way. “So I had a little bit of PTSD, and I addressed it in real time. 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.”

The AP’s Coach of the Year leaned on one of her new freshies as freshman guard Tessa Johnson scored a season-high 19 points and the Gamecocks clamped down on Clark, who scored 30 in the final.

South Carolina was too much for Iowa. Too much depth and too much size. The Gamecocks outrebounded the Hawkeyes 51-29, and South Carolina’s bench outscored Iowa’s a staggering 37-0.

Always fashion forward, Staley wore a silver jacket for the title game after sporting Louis Vuitton from head to toe in the semifinals. She spent much of the first half with her hands shoved into her pants pockets as she fumed to the officials about some questionable fouls called against her team.

But she had a very different look in the closing seconds as the realization of winning another championship sunk in.

In her 16 years at South Carolina, Staley has built what was once an also-ran program in the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference into a dynasty and the measuring stick for women’s hoops.

And she’s done it her way — critics be damned.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing the right way, whether we are the popular or unpopular successful programs in the country,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing it that way.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness



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