From Columbia to the WNBA

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Shaun Gortman, Teresa Geter, Jocelyn Penn, and Petra Ujhelyi. Just FOUR. That’s how many WNBA Draft picks have come from the University of South Carolina in program history. Well, let’s rephrase that – before Dawn Staley’s arrival.

Under the tutelage of Dawn Staley and her coaching staff, the South Carolina Gamecocks have enjoyed conference dominance, national attendance records, and their first NCAA National Championship in 2017. To say that the program has risen from the bottom and has been thrusted to national prominence over the past decade is an understatement.

The Gamecocks’ success didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it’s been a community effort since she stepped on campus to fill the seats and put the best product on the floor by all involved. If you’ve paid attention to women’s college basketball recruiting over the past few seasons, it’s not surprising to see why and how Staley has now been able to land some of the top players in the country.

Currently laced with five-star talent, the modern-era Gamecocks are enjoying the benefits of a process and system built by players who believed in the vision at an early stage. Coach Staley has been able to produce and compete with players who weren’t as highly ranked as others across the nation. The eye for talent that she and her staff has displayed along with the development that has taken place is what’s to be commended. That development is what has contributed to many of the younger players admitting to helping their decision in committing to South Carolina.

Since Staley’s arrival in Columbia, eight of her players have heard their names called in the WNBA Draft: Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell, Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis, A’ja Wilson, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, and Tyasha Harris. This group contains two Rookies of the Year, a handful that were named to the All-Rookie team, and an already 2x WNBA All-Star. 

Out of the aforementioned players, the majority were ranked 28th or lower by ESPN’s HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings with only three being in the top 10 – two were transfers who began their careers elsewhere. Development has been a big piece of this program as the vast majority of Staley’s players have outperformed their initial rankings.

In the 2012 HoopGurlz Rankings, Tiffany Mitchell was listed as the 46th best player.  A crafty guard with defensive prowess, Mitchell went on to become a 2x SEC Player of the Year, First Team All-American, SEC Tournament MVP, and was selected 9th overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever. Mitchell set the Fever mark for consecutive free throws made in 2016 (42), and then set a new record (43) in 2017. She is consistently one of the league leaders in free throw percentage at around 90%.

“She can develop a player,” Mitchell said in a phone interview with Winsidr. “I told her what my dreams were back in high school. Talking to all the different coaches and different schools, I felt the most comfortable having my career left in her hands. She put everything on the table for me so it just made my job a little easier. The resources were there, so whatever I did with it was up to me. She’s accomplished so much in her career and I wanted to be like her growing up.” 

Growing up in Charlotte, Mitchell had the opportunity to witness Staley as a player during her days with the Charlotte Sting. From flashy passes to the tough attitude, she was able to admire her future coach in close proximity – long before her days at South Carolina.

When speaking on what she was able to accomplish during her collegiate career even though not the highest ranked recruit, she gave all credit to Staley and her staff. “It was the shift in my mindset. I’ve never been the one to get wrapped up on rankings and accomplishments. It was more so me knowing what I was capable of me doing and them instilling the confidence in me and letting me know. The confidence factor is huge,” she said.

Confidence paid off as Mitchell is no stranger to the big moments. She added, “Coach Staley trusted me down the stretch in a lot of big games. When you have that relationship with your coach, it just makes my job that much easier. I felt comfortable in those moments and she’ll love me just the same whether I make the shot or not. 

Mitchell also applauded Staley’s willingness to have uncomfortable conversations with her players along with not “beating around the bush” in those moments. “There were no shortcuts. I feel like that’s how she knew to get the best out of her players,” she said with a laugh. 

“For the Culture” has become a theme for South Carolina and fans across the country. It’s a culture that Mitchell is proud to be a part of with an amazing sisterhood.

“Just knowing that we have that link and made it from college to the WNBA. We (South Carolina) have that name now and the culture that we helped build. Even before me, we have the pioneers, Markeshia [Grant], Ieasia [Walker], La’Keisha [Sutton], and all them before me,” she recaps as she pays homage to those before her. 

“I just saw how they connected and wanted to play together and they didn’t necessarily have the biggest names in the country, but Coach Staley found a way for them to play and buy-in to what she wanted,” Mitchell finished.

One of Staley’s most recent draftees is Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. Affectionately dubbed, “Mad Kiki” by fans, she was ranked No. 72 overall by HoopGurlz in 2016. Spending her freshman and sophomore seasons behind the more experienced post players of Coates and Wilson, we were able to see glimpses of her style of play. 

Herbert Harrigan became a double digit scorer during her junior year and looked to have put all the pieces together, then there was the well-publicized… “hiccup.” A few heartfelt conversations and a book later, she emerged as a completely energized and focused version of herself. She was prepared to be one of Staley’s leaders for the 2019-2020 season, and whew… she did just that.

Herbert Harrigan averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, minutes played, while decreasing her fouls – an area which needed work. She transitioned her game and became a threat from deep by knocking down over 43% of her shots from behind the arc. She finished her career as a NCAA National Champion, 3x SEC Champion, All-SEC player, and 2020 SEC Tournament MVP. “Mad Kiki” also finished tied (with Coates) for 2nd place in blocks in Gamecocks program history with 210. At the 2020 WNBA Draft, she was selected 6th overall by the Minnesota Lynx. Her teammate, Tyasha Harris, was selected 7th by the Dallas Wings.  

Other coaches also appreciate what Staley is doing. In 2017, Coach Staley was announced as the Head Coach of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team. Washington Mystics Head Coach Mike Thibault was on the bench in 2008 when he and Staley were both assistants on the gold medal squad. 

“The first thing is that she can draw on her own experience as a player,” Thibault told me fresh off his first WNBA Championship. “From what she went through to become a good player, the work and time you have to spend becoming that. She has seen it all. She’s been a player at the highest level and she’s coached at a high level. She can give a perspective that most can’t because of her various experiences – as Team USA player and coach. As a young player, I’d be looking to draw on every experience she had.”

What exactly was Staley’s experience as a player? During her collegiate career at Virginia, she led the Cavaliers to four NCAA Tournaments, three Final Fours, and one National Championship game. She was a two-time ACC Player of the Year and won National Player of the Year in ‘91 and ‘92. Moving on to the professional ranks, she was a 6x WNBA All Star and voted as one of the league’s Top 15 players in its first 15 years. Staley is also a 3x Olympic Gold-Medalist for Team USA. To put it quite simply: she has excelled at every level. 

Those are the experiences that her players can pull from. One can only imagine that learning from a coach that’s “been there” before is beneficial.

“As we were both assistants, I always think of her for how feisty she is. I always appreciate coaches that are straight up with players and honest. She tells them what they need to hear and not necessarily what they want to hear. I think that’s a big part of coaching, and players see through that if you’re phony. Her passion rubs off on people and I think she’s very direct,” Thibault said.

That seems to be a common theme here. According to both Mitchell and Thibault, Staley will definitely tell you exactly how it is. That type of transparency is what people appreciate.

Thibault then added, “She’s been in different situations. She comes up with a style that fits her various teams. She has good post players, which is interesting for a point guard that she’s able to see the game through the post. She’s tough on point guards, because she was one – and I think I am too so we relate that way that we expect a lot out of our leaders with the ball. She’s really good at recognizing what the strengths of her team are.”

Recognizing those strengths has helped Staley build a program and culture that’s loved locally, nationally, and internationally – as evidenced by a fierce fanbase (the FAMs) along with the recent recruiting of international players.

With both individual and program record-breaking seasons, it’s not a far-fetched idea to think that Staley is just scratching the surface. The players may change, but the results are often consistent. From the Twin Towers to Point Guard University and everything in between, Coach Staley possesses the ability to embrace change and adjust accordingly. 

As it stands currently, Staley will have a total of seven former players on active WNBA rosters: Six from South Carolina and one (Dupree) from Temple.

With a culture and system in place that works, the only question is: 

“Who’s next?”

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1 Comment

  1. Allen Searson on

    The best article, in terms of comprehension and accuracy, that I have ever read on Staley. Thanks much!

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