Dawn Staley is a gamechanger

As a player and now as a coach, Dawn Staley has changed the culture of women's basketball. Nationally recognized as one of the best female basketball players to ever play the game, Staley is able to use that when she walks into the homes of high school basketball players. One of Staley's best recruiting classes takes the court for the first time Friday night.

Dawn Staley is a gamechanger. Whether it was a player on the court or a coach on the sidelines, all Staley knows how to do is win. After earning National Player of the Year honors as a senior in high school in 1988, Staley went on to play the next four years at Virginia where she led the Cavaliers to three Final Four appearances and was named Most Outstanding Player in 1991 after leading Virginia to the final game of the season. Staley went on to lead Team USA to three consecutive Olympic gold medals from 1996-2004. In her final Olympic games in 2004, Staley was given the prestigious honor of carrying the flag in the opening ceremony.

Staley immediately turned that successful playing career into a successful coaching career. Staley took the reins at Temple and compiled a 172-80 record as Owls head coach. She led Temple to seven postseason appearances in eight years, including six in the NCAA Tournament.

While the Temple program was thriving, the South Carolina program was declining. With Susan Walvius out as head coach, Athletics Director Eric Hyman knew he had to make a big hire. He did just that when he was able to lure Staley from Temple to take over at Carolina in 2008. Staley was hired with a base salary of $250,000 and total package of $650,000 per season for five years. Many complained that it was too much money, but with a successful baseball program and a football program on the rise Hyman knew he had to take care of basketball.

The key to turning around any program begins with recruiting. While recruiting in basketball is easier than football in that one or two great players can turn around a program, it is very difficult to get those players into your program. Staley, thanks in large part to her accolades as a player, has never had problems getting into the house of recruits. Many young female basketball players have posters of Staley in their room much like male athletes had posters of Michael Jordan in their room. The name Dawn Staley carries a lot of weight in the women's basketball community.

"That's 100% true, and I think that's one of the reasons why she has quickly put South Carolina back on the map," analyst Debbie Antonelli said recently. "Dawn has this endearing quality that when she sits down with a potential student-athlete and the family, you instantly know that your daughter is going to be in good hands and that she's not only going to develop them as a basketball player but they are going to be a better person."

That became very evident early on as Staley signed Kelsey Bone, the nation's number two prospect in the 2009 class, as part of her first recruiting class that also included Ieasia Walker. Bone would leave after her first season to go back to Texas to play for Texas A&M, who travel to Columbia later this season in Bone's final year. Still, it became apparent that Staley's name carried a lot of weight.

Just two years later Staley Kayla Brewer, the nation's 14th-ranked forward. Brewer never finished a season under Staley, choosing to leave early on and transfer to Texas. Still, it was another example of Staley landing serious talent with little on-court success. When you combine the Staley name with on-court success, Staley is a serious gamechanger in recruiting. Staley has signed an ultra-talented class last season that appears to be a bit underrated as ESPN rated them 18th in the nation. Staley signed four players including instate stars Asia Dozier, the daughter of former Gamecock great Perry Dozier, and Khadijah Sessions. She added a pair of Tiffany's in Tiffany Mitchell and Tiffany Davis to round out the recruiting class.

"I feel real good about our team," Staley said. "Contrary to what I say to them in practice and preparation, I feel real good about them because we're not coaching effort. They want to get better and any time you have that atmosphere it always makes you feel good."

Mitchell came in right away and earned that final starting position along with Walker, Sancheon White, Ashley Bruner, and Welch. Mitchell scored 10 points in the exhibition contest against Anderson, while adding in two steals and an assist.

"Tiffany Mitchell is probably one that is making the most noise," Staley said. "She doesn't have to play the point guard so she plays a little bit looser and is able to play more of her style of play that she played in high school and AAU. She's athletic and can play both sides of the basketball. When she has it going she looks pretty good."

Dozier had the best game of the four freshmen against Anderson, tying Welch for a game-high 14 points, including 3-of-5 from behind the arc. She also added in six rebounds in 23 minutes.

"Asia Dozier is starting to hit shots and is starting to feel comfortable in our system," Staley said. "We're looking for her to certainly hit those 3's like she did for Spring Valley."

Davis and Sessions have the difficult job of playing point guard for Staley. As a former point guard herself, Staley does not take it easy on her point guards, much like how Steve Spurrier treats his quarterbacks. Sessions scored 11 points and dished out five assists with six steals against Anderson, while Davis struggled. Davis finished with one assist, but missed all six of her shot attempts.

"Our two freshman point guards, Tiffany Davis and Kadijah Sessions, have the hardest transitions because of the position," Staley said. "We're asking them to do a whole lot. That's the position I played and I'm not very kind to them because they need to grasp a lot of information because they're responsible for the success for our program."

Recruiting is always a hit-and-miss game and sometimes things just don't work out, as in the case of Bone and Brewer. That doesn't mean that you quit recruiting nationally.

"We recruit where the best players are," Staley said. "Fortunately for us some of the best players are right here in the state of South Carolina. If there are players outside of this region that we feel will fit in with our style of play, it is all of it. It's not just talent. We have to make sure we take care of the great chemistry we have with our basketball team. Solid play is important, but there are also characteristics of being a good upstanding person to really take into consideration as well."

Staley already has a commitment from Alaina Coates for the class of 2013, ranked fourth nationally as a post, and is in the running for 2014 star A'ja Wilson, the tenth best player in the country, Amber Campbell, the ninth best guard in the nation, and Kaydra Duckett, the tenth best guard in the nation. Fortunately for Staley, all four players reside in the state of South Carolina and both Wilson and Duckett play with Coates on the AAU circuit. The difference is that instate recruits in the past never gave Carolina a second look. With Staley in town, not only are they giving Carolina a second look, they are giving the Gamecock a third and fourth look as well.

"I think they are being taken very seriously," Antonelli said. "I see Dawn and her staff in on a lot of kids that they wouldn't have gotten in on a few years ago because of their success and people understand that it takes time to build. South Carolina has everything it needs; they play in a tough conference, they have all the facilities, and they have great administrative support that care about the growth of the game. All those pieces are in place and Dawn Staley as the cherry on top."

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