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March 6, 2014

WBB: Staley through the years

In Dawn Staley's first season, South Carolina won only 10 games and went 2-14 in conference play. In her sixth season, she has the Gamecocks ranked fifth in the country and went 14-2 in the SEC. Here is a look back at those early days in Staley's words, and how things have changed.

May 10, 2008: Staley was introduced as the head coach of South Carolina women's basketball. "I know Carolina is committed to the women's basketball program."

It was a major coup when athletics director Eric Hyman lured Staley away from Temple, and he had to pay for it. Staley's initial contract paid her $650,000, a lot in the world of women's basketball, and nearly double what predecessor Susan Walvius made. Hyman also gave Staley the money to hire a full support staff, and committed to having women's basketball play in Colonial Life Arena and enjoy all the same perks the men's team enjoys.

That expenditure was unpopular for the first few seasons, when there was little to show for the cost. Even worse, Staley's salary was roughly the same as that of Ray Tanner, who was in the process of winning a pair of national championships in baseball. But the investment began to pay off when the Gamecocks made the NCAA tournament in 2012. The rewards were really seen this season as the Gamecocks set attendance records and enjoyed a record-setting season on the court. It is safe to say if the administration had not made the commitment in 2008, women's basketball would not be where it is today.

December 19, 2008: South Carolina lost 78-47 to No. 3 Stanford. "I'll take four midgets that can play."

Stanford won by relentless pounding the ball inside to a pair of 6-4 centers and dominating on the glass. In that game, Stanford dressed just one player under 6-0 while the Gamecocks dressed only one player over 6-2. After the game, Staley was asked if one day, she hoped to be able to trot out size like Stanford's. Staley said she'd be happy to take talented midgets, because "Size has to be able to play."

This season, South Carolina looks a lot like that Stanford team. The Gamecocks have a pair of 6-4 centers and a 6-0 forward who can play all over the court. They frequently win games by wearing down opponents by relentlessly attacking the rim. They aren't as big as that Stanford team, but there are not many teams that are, and not many as big and physical as the Gamecocks this season.

December 28, 2008: South Carolina lost to No. 1 Connecticut 77-48. "We didn't play USC last year."

To the surprise of nobody, the Huskies dominated the Gamecocks. But the most telling comment was made as an aside by one of UConn's players after the game.

The previous season, prior to Staley's arrival, UConn blew out South Carolina 97-39 in Storrs. A reporter asked several Huskies how South Carolina was different under Staley. The players leaned away from the microphones, looked at each other, and said, "We didn't play USC last year."

Geno Auriemma quickly jumped in to try to cover his players' gaffe, complimenting Staley on how she improved the Gamecocks' discipline and competitiveness, but the point was clear. The Gamecocks were such pushovers that opponents did not remember playing them. That was the atmosphere Staley encountered.

November 18, 2010: South Carolina defeats Clemson 73-50, Staley's first win in the rivalry. "I think a lot of people in Columbia, S.C., want every team to beat Clemson. We were one of the teams that hadn't done that since I've been here, and I just wanted to make sure I'm in the group of good coaches."

The last thing Staley got to check off as she built the program was beating Clemson. By her third season, she had improved the talent level and had more talent coming in. Despite losing heralded recruit Kelsey Bone to a transfer, Staley's program was trending up. But she couldn't beat Clemson. And, even worse, she didn't seem to care, committing the faux pas of telling reporters she would rather beat UConn than Clemson. The 2010 game was a turning point.

In that game, the Gamecocks had only one player on the roster from the Palmetto State, walk-on guard Imani Sellers. Since then, Staley has built a wall around the state, and although some players still get out, most of them stay in-state, and they come to Columbia. It is probably not a coincidence that South Carolina's surge has coincided with the implosion of Clemson's program. This season, there were seven players from South Carolina, and another from just across the border in Charlotte. Staley's signing class this season includes another player from South Carolina and one from Charlotte (and the Gamecocks are in the running for a second player from South Carolina).

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