Q. Dawn, what did it mean to your program when A'ja (Wilson) decided to commit? Could you maybe take us back through the recruitment of her as the No. 1 player in the country, what it meant for you?
COACH STALEY: I think any time that you have the best player in the country in your backyard, I think it brings credibility. I don't know if we'll ever get another No. 1 player in the country, if she were not from our area.
The amount of time that went into recruiting her, her family, it was quite easy to do it because we had access to all of those people. They watched our program grow from the ground up. We provided some things that other programs, other top programs in the country, were providing to their top recruits.
But it meant a great deal with an attendance standpoint, where our fans get a chance to come and watch her grow up. She's a family person, so it gave her an opportunity to play in front of her family.
It also allowed us to branch out and recruit some other players nationally, because if she's considering the University of South Carolina, other ones may follow suit. Back then it wasn't a very popular thing to choose our school because we hadn't been to the Final Four. I don't know if we won an SEC -- yeah, we won one at that point.
It meant that she gave us a little credibility, to say that we're on the rise.
Q. Notes highlight the raised level of play for Allisha (Gray), A'ja and Kaela (Davis). What did you talk to your players about after Alaina (Coates) went out with injury, and how did you see their production respond?
COACH STALEY: I didn't necessarily talk to the three of them. I talked to our team. When you have a player go down that has contributed in a way that Alaina has contributed for us, it's a blow. You feel it from an emotional standpoint. You have to take it, you know, head on, in that moment.
We found out. We told our team. We just moved forward. It's much like, you know, if a player gets injured during a practice. We immediately take the rest of the team down the other end and we continue practicing. I'll go back over and check on the injured player, but you can't show your players any sign of weakness, or you're less confident in us moving forward.
I think you just have to stay confident. I've always preached with our players you can't get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. You have to find a way to maintain. If you're maintaining, you can only go up. You can only go up.
I thought our players took our lead as far as our coaching staff, felt like we had enough in the room to accomplish all of our goals, still with the injury.
Q. Allisha Gray was big for you last night. Talk about what you need her to do for you, what she does for you.
COACH STALEY: Allisha Gray has been the most consistent probably of all of our players. We call her the silent assassin. She doesn't say much. She lets her play speak for itself. She's been doing that time and time again.
She's never complained about what she gives up on a defensive end as far as having to play much taller, stronger post players. She just does it. She just goes about her job. She does it in a way that would make any coach proud.
I wish I had two or three or four more Allisha Grays. If we did, I'd probably feel a little more confident going into a national championship game (smiling).
Q. What happened last night, do you think that's necessary for the evolution of the game, with what Mississippi State did, to let other teams know that it's possible on the biggest stage, that maybe we can do it, too?
COACH STALEY: Yeah, I think it's good for the game. It's good to shake it up a little bit. I think more people are going to start watching it just because.
What it does is it gives hope to all of us, all of us that are not in that number of 19 national championships. We're just vying to get one. Hopefully we can build off that.
But certainly I think it breathes a light into women's basketball, knowing that it's not the same old, same old, same old UConn. Although it's been an incredible ride. It's been incredible to watch. It's been a beautiful thing to watch.
But it was great. I mean, it's great to know that somebody else is going to win a national championship. It's not the same old, you know, Velcro. You just take the Velcro off, stick Connecticut back up. It's different. It's a nice little flavor to it.
Q. Dawn, does it make it easier for you guys preparing for tomorrow that it's an SEC battle, you played twice already?
COACH STALEY: It does make it easier, you know, but you can't -- for what Mississippi State has done over the past five games, you know, they're much different than they were that sixth game in which we played them in the SEC tournament championship.
The intangible part of it is really hard to get our focus in on it. They're playing at an all-time high. Morgan William is playing some of the best basketball I've ever seen played in a player.
You can't go into the game thinking you can just do the same old things. You got to give her different looks. You got to make sure that she's not getting hot and into a groove.
But as far as player personnel, we know them. We know them extremely well. Although you have to prepare for both of them, we are prepared for both of them. We didn't have to prepare as much for an opponent we haven't seen all season.
Q. Were you surprised by what happened last night?
COACH STALEY: I wasn't surprised because we've played them. I've watched UConn over the past couple of years. I think Vic has the personnel to disrupt. He did it in a way, over a 40-minute period, which is extremely hard to stay engaged that long against a UConn team that is just a machine as far as what they're able to do offensively.
I just thought they had the bigs to give them a little trouble. They used their bigs in the right way on both sides of the ball. I think UConn had a bad day. Watching the game, Mississippi State had a lot to do with it.
Q. Dawn, when you took over at South Carolina, Tennessee was still the power of the SEC. Did you have in your mind, Hey, this is where I want to get to, to be that kind of power in the league? Can you also talk about the fact that you and Mississippi State are here in a national championship game, have kind of replaced, if you will, the power structure in the SEC.
COACH STALEY: Well, here's how it went for my coaching career. When I was at Temple for eight years, we would get to the NCAA tournament, the first round, possibly the second round. We've always, you know, lost in that first and second round. That was really frustrating.
I thought at that time, nine years ago, that we took Temple as far as we could take it, with the players we could get, to recruit, to come to Temple. At tournament time, we always got out-talented. We out-played people, but they out-talented us.
I, as a coach, wanted to be part of what's happening right now. I thought making a coaching move to a bigger conference would allow our coaching staff to live out some dreams that we wanted as coaches, and that's to win a national championship.
South Carolina opened up. I mean, it was two-fold. One, personally, my parents are from South Carolina. They were born there. Then professionally, it's the platform that we needed to compete and win for national championships.
We don't know it's always going to work out that way, but I knew we had the platform. I didn't know that A'ja Wilson was in our backyard. I didn't know Aleighsa Welch was in our backyard. Nor did I know Tiffany Mitchell.
But it all came together quite nicely in the fact that we had some of the top players in the country in our state and in surrounding areas. It made this dream come true a little bit quicker.
So, you know, South Carolina, the SEC, allowed us to be in this position. For two SEC teams to compete for a national championship, it's quite incredible. Even just looking at Vic and what he's done with Mississippi State in just a short period of time. I think a lot of people don't really understand what goes into coaching young people these days. Some people don't understand what young people have to do to realize their dreams.
Sometimes you've got to make hard calls. Sometimes you've got to, you know, gain by losing. All that happens. But it's these moments that make you forget about those times and really appreciate the good times and what it took to get here.
Q. As a coach, what did you see in that MSU locker room? Secondly, did you talk with Bianca (Cuevas-Moore) yet about the matchup at the lead guard spot, some of the things she might need to do come Sunday night?
COACH STALEY: We did walk by. I looked in the locker room, their locker room, and I just saw them very, very happy for accomplishing something that most people didn't think could get done.
I actually wanted to get some eye contact from somebody just to say congratulations, because you work so hard, you want to make sure that you give credit where credit is due. I wanted to congratulate Vic. I did text him just to congratulate him on winning.
You know, I'm a dream merchant for young people. One of their dreams was to come true. They're not my kids, but it's a dream that has been realized by young people. I wanted to kind of get eye contact with them just to say congratulations.
I also wanted to let them have their moment.
As far as the matchup, you know, with Morgan William, we had film today. We talked a little bit about it. Bianca knows what she has to do. She has to really stay engaged and make it difficult.
Morgan William is going to make shots, she's going to make plays. It is how she's making those plays. If we can decrease the amount of times that those plays are easy plays, I think it works in our favor. But if she's in a groove and she's playing as she's played over the past five games, it's going to be a long night for us.
Q. How do you like your matchups in terms of trying to make things difficult for not only Victoria or Morgan, but several of their position players?
COACH STALEY: I mean, we feel good about our matchups. I think, you know, what you have to kind of plan for, and you don't want to plan for, but you do, is foul trouble. If A'ja Wilson gets herself in a little foul trouble, that hurts. But we've been there before, but not against a team as big as Mississippi State. We've got to find a way to keep A'ja on the floor.
Everybody else I think puts us in a position, you know, to match up fairly well. It's when you take A'ja Wilson out of the equation, you're left with a freshman post player with Kiki Harrigan. That's probably too big of a stage for us to rely on her to play heavy minutes. But everybody else, I think we got enough to match up fairly well with them.
Q. You've watched Teaira McGowan the last two years. Talk about what you've seen in the progression of her game.
COACH STALEY: I actually had the opportunity to work with her with USA Basketball. She was on our U-18 team. To see her three years ago versus today, and every time I see her, I marvel. I tell her she looks great. She's playing well. I mean, they've done a tremendous job just from her physique. She's strong mentally. She's playing with a high level of confidence. She's becoming somewhat of a go-to player down there in the paint. She's delivering for them.
I'm very happy. I'm very happy that she's taken a lot more seriously, because she'll have a long, fruitful career playing basketball.
Q. Do you remember at one point a couple of things happened that you looked at each other and said, We're on the way?
COACH STALEY: Well, probably during the Candice Dupree era, after her freshman year.
You mean at South Carolina?
Q. South Carolina.
COACH STALEY: Hmm, I would say when we signed Aleighsa Welch is when things seemed to take off, not just from a basketball perspective, but just from a chemistry. It felt more like family. It felt like our culture was taking place, which would allow us to bring in better players, better character kids.
Once we got good kids in there that loved basketball, the sky was the limit. It's opened up, you know, so many options for us to do a lot of different things. Kids that believed in our vision. We finally got the majority of our players believing in our vision.
As any coach would tell you, you're going to be whoever the majority of your team is. If the majority of your team is negative, you have a negative team. If the majority of your team is positive and believes in your vision, that's who you're going to be.
I think once Aleighsa Welch got to us, the majority of our team was believing in what our coaching was instilling in them.
Q. Dawn, did Vic respond to your text? Have you had any interaction since last night?
COACH STALEY: Vic did respond. He was up quite early today, so he responded pretty early (smiling). He did respond.
Then as far as looking back over the year, I think sometimes we lose sight of how good women's basketball is because of UConn's dominance. But you're slowly seeing it by having two new teams in the Final Four this year. There's going to be a new first-time national champion winner tomorrow night.
You're slowly seeing, you know, how good women's basketball is. It takes probably UConn losing for you to really appreciate what's taken place over the past few years. I'm hoping that it continues, and people can really see the layers that are beneath what UConn has been able to do over the past decade.
Q. How special is it to you to be one of two teams representing your university this weekend, then one of three teams representing the conference?
COACH STALEY: Well, I mean, it feels great. It feels great. This is what we've worked so hard for. This is what we envisioned for our program. I can probably speak for our commissioner, Commissioner Sankey, saying this is what he envisioned for the SEC, for us to be playing on the third weekend in the NCAA tournament, for our conference, which I think is known as a football conference.
We're raising eyebrows as far as putting basketball in that same conversation. I mean, the SEC gives us an incredible platform, from a television standpoint, from just our institutions, they're so supportive. We want all of our sports to be successful. They give us a platform to do that.
We're not surprised by us being here. Probably the rest of the country's probably a little surprised by what's taken place by SEC teams.
Q. What do you think the difference was in the first two matchups? How hard will it be to win a third time?
COACH STALEY: You know, the biggest difference is the margin of error was small. The games could have gone either way. I mean, it took us making plays at the end. We just made one or two more plays than they did in the fourth quarter of both games.
Is it hard to play somebody three times? It is. But for how the games played out, that could have gone either way, I mean, it's so close. You can't use that as bragging rights. And you're playing for a national championship. You've got to throw all of that out the door.
They're not looking at the SEC tournament championship game. They're not looking at the regular-season game that we played. They're looking at how we are. We're a little bit different than what we were six games ago. They're a lot different to me as far as scoring the basketball. They're scoring the basketball at a high rate.
I think Vic's going to be who he's going to be from a defensive standpoint, so we know that part of it. It's going to come down to us, either one of us, sustaining runs and making plays down the stretch.
Q. Dawn, I know you probably burned a bunch of cell phone batteries out of your many followers on Twitter last night. I know she checked in after you got the Olympic job. Did you hear from the UN ambassador (Nikki Haley) in the last 24 hours?
COACH STALEY: No, I haven't heard from her yet. I hope she doesn't because I don't want her to jinx us (laughter).
Q. Do you have pregame rituals? If so, what are they? Do you have a pregame routine?
COACH STALEY: Pregame routine on the road, I don't really nap, but I do just kind of lie still and watch TV, especially if my nerves are bad. But other than that, not really. I don't have a pregame ritual.
Actually, I do my hair. I try to do my hair. That's a ritual. I don't know how that works out, though (smiling).
Q. What has been your most difficult moment while coaching?
COACH STALEY: Wow, the most difficult?
You know, I always try to look at things positively, even when there's a storm. When I was at South Carolina, we dealt with some transfers. You know, you look at the amount of work you put into recruiting someone, when you don't feel like they trust the process enough and give you a chance to show them that, you know, this is the right place for them, that can seem like some difficulty.
But, again, just like when you're dealing with adversity, you can't allow your other players to know how it's really affecting you. You have to turn the page and keep moving forward.
That's probably what we've done time and time again, like we're dealing with an injury to one of our best players in the history of our program. We didn't allow our players to see it other than it being a positive and us moving forward, no matter how hard it was for us to kind of hurdle that, while also being sympathetic to our injured player.
So, you know, you have to turn the page. You have to stay strong for your team. Your team will follow.