Way back in October, before a single game had been played, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley noted something about her team that didn’t sit quite right with her.
“I mean, they all have a killer mentality, but they’re super nice. You know, it almost bothers me how nice they are, I mean, to a certain extent, because I asked them a question like a week or two ago. I’m like, ‘Can nice players win a championship?’ And obviously they said yes, and it is a question that really, you know, bothers me,” Staley said at the time.
Yes, the Gamecocks were returning most of the players from the 2019-20 roster that went 32-1 and seemed primed for a national title run before the COVID-19 pandemic. But they had lost one of the “nastiest” players in recent program history, forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who thrilled fans with her “Mad Kiki” persona and had the anger and fire on the court to give that team a much-needed edge.
Flash forward more than four months later, and Staley was in the huddle with her team. They were locked in an unexpectedly close battle with Alabama in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. After going up big, their lead had shrunk to single digits. The question of whether nice teams can win titles was no longer hypothetical. And this time, Staley gave her players the answer.
“I did have to tell them during the timeout, a nice team is not going to win a national championship, nor an SEC tournament championship. We got to find some grit,” Staley said Friday night.
Sure enough, USC dug deep and found a way to win that game. And two days later, they cut down the nets at Bon Secours Wellness Arena after beating Georgia in a punishing physical contest that tested the limits of just how gritty the Gamecocks could be. That moment against Alabama, sophomore forward Aliyah Boston said, changed everything.
“Coach, she told us nice teams cannot win championships. They can’t even win SEC championships,” Boston said. “I think that right there kind of set it off a little bit. We said, you know what, guys, we need to bring this energy the entire game. Teams are going to be physical. We know they’re going to be coming after us. We just have to stand our ground and be ready for it.”
Of course, it’s not as simple as one challenge from Staley changing the entire mindset and attitude of a team. The question of nice vs. nasty has been one South Carolina has wrestled with all year long. But after falling short in four close games during the regular season, missing the “killer instinct” to finish off victories against top-10 opponents, the Gamecocks showed Staley something new over the weekend in Greenville.
“You just don’t get rid of niceness over a weekend. Nastiness is a lifestyle, really — Nice, nasty, that balance of doing it that way,” Staley said. “I’m just happy to see that it’s in there. Like, it’s in our players. As coaches, we have to pull that out of them, or else they’re just going to be comfortably in their skin. That’s not the way the world works, because more times than not, nice people finish, maybe not last place, but surely not first place.”
It took a lot out of them — Staley was asked how she was feeling after the championship and admitted she was drained, even more so than she has been after previous tournament runs. And her players were in the same boat. Sophomore Zia Cooke and senior LeLe Grissett both went to the locker room with injuries during Sunday’s title game. Cooke eventually returned to the game, but Grissett was in crutches and a walking boot during the celebration.
And even those who weren’t hurt were left exhausted. Boston and junior guard Destanni Henderson each played more than 100 minutes over three games. Down the stretch Sunday, their fatigue was obvious.
“If you look and you see some of our players, they’re limping out of here,” Staley said. “They were exhausted. We called timeout, you look at them, they’re sitting in front of you, standing in front of you, their mouths hanging open.”
But it was in those most tired moments that the Gamecocks were able to show the grit and nastiness Staley wanted to see all year long. Early in the fourth quarter of the semifinals against Tennessee, South Carolina was up 21 points. It was exactly the kind of situation where they might have relaxed earlier in the year, letting the Lady Vols make a late run to get close.
A shot was blocked. Cooke went for the loose ball and got tangled up with Tennessee’s Tamari Key. They hit the floor and a held ball was called. Words were exchanged, with players on both teams jawing at each other, and Cooke and UT’s Rennia Davis were both called for technical fouls. It was the first technical foul called on any South Carolina player all season long.
“Coach, she has said that we’re a little bit too nice on the court. When we get pushed, sometimes we don’t push back. I think coming into this tournament, we had a different mindset. Yeah, Zia got a tech. But I think it was her standing her ground, making sure she stayed strong,” Boston said.
Tennessee never got within 15 points throughout the fourth quarter. And in the title game Sunday against Georgia, the Gamecocks once again rose to the occasion. Bodies hit the court regularly. Defensive intensity was high. The Bulldogs came charging back, showing fight of their own. But USC held on, and Boston finished the job with two clutch free throws in the final 15 seconds.
Would the team from the beginning of the season, the one that said nice players can win championships, have had the grit to pull out that victory? Perhaps. But Staley said the struggles South Carolina had this season changed her players and put them in a place where Sunday was possible.
“Losing does that for you. It’s a wake-up call. They’re highly competitive, they’re highly motivated. They only want to win,” Staley said. “So when they’re not winning, they’ll tune in a little bit better to make sure that that losing feeling escapes them a lot more than presents itself.”