South Carolina’s Rise to the Top of College Basketball
How Dawn Staley turned the Gamecocks women’s basketball program into a perennial power
By Alex Holmes
Selection Monday is upon us and the South Carolina women’s basketball team has all but secured a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance after winning its sixth SEC tournament title. Since taking over the helm at South Carolina in 2008, Dawn Staley has established the Gamecocks as one of the most consistent and successful programs in the country. This transformation did not happen in one season, or two, or even three. Looking back at the past decade, South Carolina’s evolution into a national title contender has been due to Dawn Staley’s leadership and her ability to draw top-rated local recruits to Columbia.
Dawn Staley has had one of the most successful careers in American basketball history. As the current coach of Team USA, her beginning with USA Basketball goes back three decades, when she was a member of the 1989 USA Junior World Championship team. That same year, she began her college career at the University of Virginia where she led the Cavaliers to three straight NCAA Final Four appearances in 1990, 1991, and 1992, and earned National Player of the Year honors in back-to-back seasons.
The future five-time WNBA All-Star would go on to win three Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 1996, 2000, and 2004. Needless to say, Staley’s playing career provided more than a solid foundation for coaching.
Staley began her head-coaching career in 2000 at Temple University, and she remained an active player in the WNBA while coaching the Owls. In eight seasons at Temple, she won four Atlantic 10 Conference tournaments and guided the program to six appearances in the NCAA tournament. Her success at Temple caught South Carolina’s attention—in 2008, Dawn Staley became the head coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team.
After going 10-18 in her first season at South Carolina, the program did nothing but ascend from there. By her third season, the Gamecocks made it into the 2011 WNIT. That same year, Staley signed recruit Aleighsa Welch, who would go on to play a large role in the Gamecocks’ success over the next four years.
A native of Goose Creek, South Carolina, Welch was the first key recruit that chose to stay close to home and compete for Dawn Staley. As a freshman in the 2011-12 campaign, she helped South Carolina earn its first NCAA tournament berth since 2003 and the team advanced as far as the Sweet Sixteen. The following year, South Carolina welcomed two highly touted guards in Tiffany Mitchell and Kadijah Sessions. Both players were rated in the top 50 in the class of 2012 by ESPN. Similar to Welch, the two newcomers opted to play college ball nearby in Columbia, as Welch made the trip from Charlotte and Sessions came from Myrtle Beach.
In their first season together, the trio led South Carolina to its highest ranking in the NCAA tournament, coming in as a fourth seed. Although they made an early second round exit in 2013, the future looked very bright for the Gamecocks with rising junior Welch and rising sophomores Mitchell and Sessions.
The following season was huge for South Carolina women’s basketball for three reasons: First, the Gamecocks won the SEC regular season championship outright for the first time in program history. Second, South Carolina earned its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, officially establishing itself as a favorite for the national championship. Finally, Staley signed the most highly touted recruit in the history of South Carolina basketball and the nation’s top prospect in the class of 2014—the A’ja Wilson Era was about to begin.
Recruiting Wilson was monumental for Staley’s program. Her signing made a statement to the college basketball world that South Carolina was an elite team. Wilson selected South Carolina over traditional powerhouses Connecticut, Tennessee, and North Carolina. As a native of Hopkins, South Carolina—a mere 13 miles southeast of Columbia—Wilson followed the trend of Welch, Mitchell, and Sessions who also decided to play closer to home.
Instead of joining one of the programs with established records of success and many banners hanging in their rafters, Wilson was ready to join Staley as she continued to transform South Carolina’s basketball program into a title contender.
Staley guided South Carolina to its first ever No. 1 ranking in the AP poll in the winter of 2014. By this point in her South Carolina career, Staley had a squad primed for making a run to the program’s first Final Four. Wilson was named the 2015 National Freshman of the Year and a third-team All-American. Mitchell won her first of two back-to-back SEC Player of the Year honors and was an inevitable All-America selection. Mitchell and Welch were named to the All-SEC First Team for the second straight time, and they became the first South Carolina players to make multiple conference first team selections since Jocelyn Penn accomplished the feat in 2002 and 2003. This Gamecock squad won South Carolina’s first ever SEC tournament and secured a No. 1 seed for the second year in a row.
Led by their senior leader and tenacious rebounder Aleisgha Welch, the Gamecocks advanced to the program’s first Final Four in 2015. Welch finished her career with AP All-America Honorable Mention accolades and left Columbia as the program leader in offensive rebounds.
The program was in very good hands with Mitchell and Wilson. They won two more SEC tournament championships together in 2016 and 2017. Mitchell graduated in 2016 and ended her career as a three-time All-America selection and South Carolina’s all-time leader in games played and games started.
Wilson led the program to its pinnacle in 2017, when the Gamecocks won the National Championship. It was the first NCAA crown for the program and for Dawn Staley, who came up short of the championship in three Final Fours as a player. In 2018, Wilson graduated from South Carolina as its most decorated player—she was named the 2018 National Player of the Year and won the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, and Wade Trophy. She is the highest draft pick yet to come out of South Carolina, going as the first overall pick to the Las Vegas Aces, where she has continued her illustrious basketball career as a cornerstone to the Aces program. Her legacy at South Carolina is embodied in her very own statue that sits outside of the Gamecocks’ Colonial Life Arena where her jersey will one day hang retired in the rafters.
If consistent, high-rating recruiting classes is one of the best indicators of a dynasty, then Dawn Staley is doing just fine.
She has signed the top-rated recruiting class in two of the past three years. In 2019, she signed one of the best classes in college basketball history, headlined by Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, and Breanna Beal. In their freshman season, this quartet led South Carolina to a final No. 1 ranking in the AP poll and were heavy favorites to advance to the NCAA Championship before the season was cancelled due to COVID-19.
The class of 2021 is the top-rated recruiting class heading into next fall. Raven Johnson, who was recently named the National High School Player of the Year, is the highest-rated prospect from the group. She is joined by guards Saniya Rivers and Aubryanna Hall, and forward Sania Feagin, all of whom are ranked nationally in the top 15 of ESPN’s 2021 class. The two coveted classes will give Staley a loaded roster for next season.
In the last decade, Dawn Staley has transformed South Carolina into a national title contender. She continues to draw a steady flow of talented local players as her hard work has made Columbia into a destination for the elite. This year’s edition of Staley’s Gamecocks is all that we have become accustomed to over the last few seasons: they are physical, play tough defense, and have a complimentary backcourt to a frontcourt anchored by one of the best posts in the country.
This season, at 22–4, South Carolina was the No. 4 overall team in the NCAA Selection Commitee’s latest Top 16 reveal. After winning the SEC tournament, the Gamecocks are projected to remain as one of the four No. 1 seeds.
Dawn Staley created the blueprint and Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell, and A’ja Wilson laid the foundation for the future of South Carolina basketball. The last decade of Staley’s success in Columbia points to a bright future for her program. For now, her eyes are on the present, as she once again leads the Gamecocks into the NCAA tournament for a shot at the program’s second national championship.
The 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s College Basketball Tournament Selection Show will air live on Monday, March 15, at 7 P.M. ET on ESPN.