DALLAS - The eternal dream of a kid from the playgrounds of North Philadelphia was finally fulfilled in adulthood Sunday night when Dawn Staley-coached South Carolina topped Mississippi State, 67-55, to win the NCAA women's basketball championship.
Denied a title in three straight trips to the Final Four (1990-92) as a collegian with Virginia, two in heartbreaking rejections, Staley was able to realize the culmination of a nine-year construction project, having built the Gamecocks (33-4) from the ground up after leaving Temple in 2008.
"I can check off the box because it's something I wanted to do in my career," Staley said afterward. "Opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger - national championship games and Olympics. Those were the things I held near and dear to me when I was growing up because that's what I saw, that's what I was shooting for, and when I couldn't get it done in college, I thought that was it, because I never wanted to be sitting where I'm sitting."
She then cited late Temple athletic director Dave O'Brien, who coaxed her in 2000 to take over the Owls program.
"He saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. From then on, I can't see me doing anything other than what I'm doing, impacting the lives of young people," Staley said.
Though at one point it looked as if the game might become a rout, Mississippi State (34-5) fought back in the second half, showing the Bulldogs still had something in the tank after taking down Connecticut and its record 111-game winning streak at the buzzer in overtime Friday.
However, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer noted: "We were a step slow."
Thus, one Philadelphian follows another, with Staley's Gamecocks picking up after Geno Auriemma's four-year NCAA reign with UConn, and she also succeeds Auriemma as the U.S. Olympic coach for 2020.
Staley said winning a gold medal from the sideline would be another box to check in her career.
A sellout crowd of 19,229 in the American Airlines Center, which roared all night, watched the game wind down with South Carolina holding a 60-52 lead with 3 minutes, 33 seconds left in regulation.
Would the Gamecocks hold on, or would the Bulldogs be the latest to deprive Staley of the one thing she lacked after compiling an all-star playing career in the WNBA and winning Olympic gold medals?
All-American A'ja Wilson made it a double-digit lead on the next possession inside, and then the Gamecocks got a stop.
Wilson made it 64-52 with 1:57 left, and she made it six straight on the next possession for a 66-52 lead. At that point it was apparent that Staley's dream was not going to be denied any longer.
Wilson, her prized recruit from the backyard of the South Carolina campus in Columbia, finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
Allisha Gray, who gravitated to Staley when a bunch of talented stars left North Carolina several years ago, had 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Kaela Davis, a transfer from Georgia Tech, added 10 points.
Mississippi State's Victoria Vivians, one of the Bulldogs' top players, was held to 12 points, while Dominique Dillingham scored 11. Morgan William, who made the game-winner against UConn, had just eight points and played 23 minutes.
Some doubt as to whether Staley's group could get to Dallas arose several weeks ago, when Alaina Coates was lost for the season with a foot injury. But Staley and her staff, two of whom served at Temple, rejiggered the attack to achieve their ultimate goal.
"I can't put into words how much it meant to win this one for Coach," Wilson said. "She's put in so much time and so much into [putting] her voice into us. She really helped our confidence getting over this hump when we were going through adversity."
It was the third time this season South Carolina topped Mississippi State, including the Southeastern Conference title game.