A historic weekend in Dallas ended with the South Carolina Gamecocks winning the women's NCAA basketball championship 67–55 Sunday night over their SEC rival Mississippi State, the team that on Friday snapped UConn's 111-game winning streak.
It was the first women’s hoops title ever for the Gamecocks and the first NCAA championship for their coach Dawn Staley, who came up shy in three tries as a star player for Virginia in the early 1990s.
“It's everything I've imagined it to be and so much more,” said newly-crowned champion Victoria Patrick, a freshman guard.
The Gamecocks were without their star player, Alaina Coates, because of an ankle injury. But junior center A’Ja Wilson stepped up. Wilson is so good that she was triple— yes, triple—teamed by Stanford Friday night. But for Wilson, it seems the bigger the stage, the better her performance, as she had 23 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, and two steals.
Allisha Gray came to play, too, with 18 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and one steal. Although what was probably the most amazing stat of the night was that South Carolina pulled all of this off without making a single three-pointer.
The main thing that the Gamecocks talked about this weekend was overcoming adversity, and boy did they overcome it. In addition to losing Gray, Wilson dedicated this season to the memory of her grandmother and Gamecocks assistant coach, Nikki McCray, who recently beat breast cancer.
“Just for us to come together and remain strong is unbelievable,” said guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, who did a great job of slowing down Mississippi State star Morgan William.
“It says a lot,” said junior guard Kaela Davis. “It says how much heart that we have and how much we are willing to work for each other. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about individual accolades. It’s about this team.”
One other thing that made this night so special for the players was that they didn't just want the title for themselves; they wanted it for their coach.
“I really can't even put into words the feeling of how much it meant to win this game for Coach,” Wilson said. “She's put in so much time, so much sweat, just voiced her voice into us. Just prepping for times like this. I think she really helped our confidence, to get over this hump that we were going through with adversity, stuff like that. It really means something special to kind of bring this back home, especially for such a great person like Coach Staley.”
When Staley was growing up, there was no WNBA. As a young girl, the two titles every girl dreamed about winning were the NCAA championship and the Olympics. She ended up winning three Olympic gold medals, and now she has that NCAA title.
“You have to have patience; you have to persevere. If something is a goal of yours, don’t give up on it,” Staley said. Although—winning this game means she has to return something she had been carrying in her wallet for years. Her friend, Carolyn Peck, gave Staley part of the net when she won the NCAA tournament as the coach at Purdue in 1999. Peck said she wanted it back once Staley won her own title.
And although Staley herself made history in many ways tonight, she can join her friend Peck in one other category in the record book, as they are the only two female African-American coaches to win the NCAA title.
Mississippi State didn’t win, but many will remember this tournament most for the Bulldogs beating UConn.
MSU jumped out to an early lead but couldn’t hold it, losing to South Carolina for the third time this season.
“I thought they were really, really aggressive, did a really nice job attacking us,” Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said. “As I told the kids, You know, you pat ’em on the back, tell them ‘Good job.’ They were the better team today. It takes nothing away from our 34–5 season. As my athletic director reminded us, there were 347 teams watching this game. We were one of the two playing. Only one of them walked off that floor the winner.”
Photographs by (from top): Ron Jenkins/Getty Images (team); Jake Aron (Gray)