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Jamie Vaught: South Carolina’s Staley, UK’s Mitchell close to joining ranks of elite coaches

When I think about women’s college basketball, Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt and Andy Landers are some of the names that quickly pop up in my head.

But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dawn Staley on that list, too, if she continues her remarkable success at South Carolina down the road. And don’t forget UK’s Matthew Mitchell could be on a future list, too, if he keeps the program going in the right direction and winning.

Staley and her squad are currently ranked No. 2 in this week’s AP Top 25 poll behind Auriemma’s Connecticut club. And her unbeaten Gamecocks (15-0) are meeting No. 9 Kentucky (13-1) Thursday night in a huge SEC showdown featuring two of the nation’s Top 10 squads at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.

 Head coach Dawn Staley will lead her unbeaten South Carolina Gamecocks against Matthew Mitchell and No. 9 Kentucky (13-1) Thursday night in a huge SEC showdown featuring two of the nation's best young coaches at Memorial Coliseum (SC Athletics Photo)

Head coach Dawn Staley will lead her unbeaten South Carolina Gamecocks against Matthew Mitchell and No. 9 Kentucky (13-1) Thursday night in a huge SEC showdown featuring two of the nation’s best young coaches at Memorial Coliseum (SC Athletics Photo)

Interestingly, the last time Staley faced the Wildcats, the coach had gotten herself in a game-ending controversy which took place on March 1. With Kentucky winning 67-56 (which turned out to be the final tally) with 16 seconds left, she visibly raised her arms in disgust and verbally complained on the floor after UK’s Mitchell had called a timeout, thinking he was trying to soak up the stunning victory.

Staley later apologized and didn’t realize the Wildcat seniors were taken out for a standing ovation from a noisy crowd of 7,560 in the regular season finale.

But the Gamecocks moved on and had its most successful campaign in program history, capturing a school-record 34 games and advancing to the NCAA Final Four for the first time.

And South Carolina, which has sold more than 11,000 season tickets, is the pre-season No. 1 choice in women’s Top 20 poll by the Sporting News yearbook for the 2015-16 season, as the deep and talented Gamecocks return three star players — senior point guard Tiffany Mitchell (two-time All-American and two-time SEC Player of Year), 6-4 junior center Alaina Coates (two-time All-SEC) and 6-5 sophomore forward A’ja Wilson (All-American).

Speaking of Staley, who is only 45 years old, the South Carolina mentor has a legendary resume. She is already a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Staley also has the national award named after her — the Dawn Staley Award, which recognizes the country’s most outstanding guard.

In addition, Staley — who had her contract extended to 2020-21 season last summer and reportedly was set to earn $1.1 million this season — is also a member of Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and a three-time Olympic gold medalist.

In 2011, the WNBA recognized her as one of the league’s “Top 15,” honoring the most influential players in the league’s history. She is a three-time All-American at the University of Virginia and made three Final Four appearances.

In her 15-plus years as the head coach at Temple and South Carolina, Staley has compiled an overall mark of 342-154. At South Carolina, she has a record of 170-74, going into Thursday night’s game, including four straight 25-win seasons, two SEC regular season titles and an SEC Tourney championship.

Staley is also an assistant coach for the U.S. National Team through the 2016 Olympic Games. She has said that carrying the American flag in front of the U.S. delegation in the 2004 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony is among her most gratifying moments on the international stage.

So, as you can see, Staley has a very impressive list of accomplishments.

During her early days, when she was playing at Virginia and in WNBA, Staley didn’t expect to be a basketball coach. She didn’t even think about coaching and kept saying no to people who have inquired about her possible interest in the coaching profession.

“I absolutely did not want to be a coach a day in my life, not one ounce in me wanted to be a coach, and I don’t know why,” she said during the NCAA Final Four press conference last April. “I have coaches who were friends before I became a coach, and the only thing they talked about was their team. It didn’t create balance as a coach.

“Little did I know, once I became a coach, I understood. It’s almost like ‑‑ and I don’t mean to say this and lessen of what a mother who’s giving birth to their first child, but it almost equates. Because I don’t have any children, basketball has given me all the emotions. Every freshman that comes in our program, or when I was at Temple University, it’s almost like birthing them. They become your child, and you live that, and you’re able to shape their lives on a daily basis and leave part of you in them so they can have the tools to be successful.

“So I don’t know why I shied away from that, but I’m glad that (then-Temple Athletic Director) Dave O’Brien saw something in me to give me that opportunity to have these emotional relationships with all of my players.”

While still an active player in WNBA, Staley coached her first game at Temple in 2000.

Looking back, Staley said her playing experience as a point guard has been very helpful to her coaching career.

“I think being a point guard and being in a position to serve others makes it almost a natural move to be able to be a coach,” she told the reporters at the Final Four. “I think the biggest transition was probably I wasn’t one that talked a whole lot. I saw things. There isn’t a whole lot of fat to when I’m speaking. I just speak just to the point.

“Sometimes speaking to the point, players don’t always get it. So you almost have to figure out ‑‑ and this is a point guard thing. You have to figure out how players process information. You’ve got to figure out what buttons to push. Those characteristics of being a point guard make it a lot easier to make the transition into coaching.”

Anyhow, in a few years, if not now, she will be one of the popular names that pop up when discussing women’s basketball during coffee breaks.

As an objective observer, it’s sure going to be fun to watch Staley coach against Mitchell in Thursday night’s UK-USC matchup, which tips off at 7 p.m. The contest will be televised by the SEC Network.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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