"We Made It like Us vs. the World"
After spending nine weeks at No. 1 and losing only one game all year, Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team saw their season cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic brought life to a halt in the U.S. and abroad. In this piece for The Players’ Tribune, Coach Staley and five members of her team look back on their season — and reflect on what might have been, and where to go from here.
Dawn Staley (coach)
When I first got the news that the NCAA tournament had been canceled, I was in the middle of writing a group text to our players. That alert popped up on my phone, and it was like I’d been punched in the gut — like all the air went out of me at once. There were two thoughts that immediately came to mind.
The first was … and I just gotta be honest here: I was pissed off. (More on that a bit later.) But the other thing was that I knew I wanted to get word out to my team before they found out from some other source — I wanted them to hear it from me, direct.
We’d been ranked No. 1 in the country for nine consecutive weeks at that point, and we were preparing to try and run the table at the tournament. So it was an exciting time for all of us. I was in the process of typing an update to our players about whether the university was staying open, and just giving them some travel details. Then, in a flash, I deleted what I’d written and my text became this:
Tyasha Harris (senior guard)
I was heartbroken when I got it. Heartbroken.
Looking back on it, there was really no sympathy in what I texted. It was more purposeful than anything, quick and to the point. I mainly just wanted to send it out right away and give our players a place to vent. I knew this was going to be painful for all of us. So I wanted to give them a place to let it out. And they all responded right away. They were quick. Ty’s our leader. She was the first one in. She sent the crying emoji, I think.
I think I just texted: “OH MY GOD!”
Oh yeah, that’s right. Yes. Then everybody followed up after that. Everyone was hurting, but the main thing that came across was that everybody was just kind of sad for Ty and Kiki because those two weren’t going to get a chance to play in the biggest tournament of their lives.
Mikiah (Kiki) Herbert Harrigan (senior forward)
It was such sad news. Beyond sad. I don’t really even know exactly how to describe it. I was just really, really sad. Because I thought that we would have won a national championship. I truly believed that.
LeLe Grissett (junior guard)
For me, the crazy thing was … I was actually texting with Kiki right at that moment. She was down in Florida, and I remember she was like, “Everything’s canceled down here. You think the tournament is gonna be canceled?” And right as I was answering her, that’s when coach’s text came through. Just like that, it was over. No tourney for us, no national championship.
I thought that we would have won a national championship.
I’m still not completely over it. I wanted to win the national championship so bad. Not for me, for our team. I wanted the freshmen to be able to experience what I went through my freshman year — to know the feeling of it, and experience that joy. I was already down about the fact that there weren’t going to be any fans for the tournament, because those crowds are what really make that whole environment so special. So I was mad when I heard that, but at the same time it was like, Well, at least we get to play. Then I got Coach’s text.
It didn’t feel real at first. I just kept wondering if it was real life. Like, part of me didn’t believe it was actually true.
Zia Cooke (freshman guard)
Totally. To this day, I don’t know why, but I still feel like maybe we’ll play. I still got hope. I mean … I guess we won’t, but some part of me still believes that it’ll happen.
Aliyah Boston (freshman forward)
Me too, Zia! Me, too. For real. For me, when all this went down, I was actually sitting at my dining room table with my aunt, and we were talking about whether they might postpone the tourney. I remember being like, “Wow, I don’t know.” And then Coach sent us that text and … man. I just … I just started crying.
I know a lot of tears were shed. Aliyah wasn’t the only one.
Seeing how much has happened and how much more we know about coronavirus since that day, canceling the tournament was absolutely the right thing to do. It was necessary for everyone’s safety, and maybe it was necessary for sports to take the lead to help everyone really take notice of what was happening and understand what was about to happen around the country.
And there’s nothing that weighs more heavily on me now than seeing how much suffering is all around us. Our prayers are with those fighting off illness and with the doctors, nurses, first responders and all the essential workers out there keeping the rest of our society working. Doing that work puts sports in perspective — there’s no doubt about that.
But in that moment — which seems so long ago now — when I had to tell my team and we just had our feelings on how we were being impacted, it was a really rough day for all of us.
There’s nothing that weighs more heavily on me now than seeing how much suffering is all around us.
For me, the one thing this news did — after I got beyond the initial shock to my system — was it made me really reflect on the season we’d had.
And, honestly, I came into this season not really having any specific goals. We had so many new players, and I just really wanted to see if they could work well together. I needed to see if there’d be any chemistry. Right from the beginning, over the summer, I liked what I was seeing — this group always wanted to play, they were always in the gym, the love for the game was there. Then, during our summer workouts, our players picked up on things fairly quickly. And for our young players, having Ty and Kiki and LeLe … they couldn’t have asked for better examples of how to do what we do.
When I spent two weeks away from the team with USA Basketball during the summer, I remember our sports performance coach, Molly, kept giving me feedback like: “This is a good group. This team could be special.” It was super early on, and she already had that feeling.
Then, as we got into official practices, the roles on this team were pretty much set by seniority. And I noticed that no one was trying to raise a fuss or buck the system. Everyone accepted their roles. Beyond that, basically everyone just listened to Ty. Everyone respected what she had to say and listened to her and just followed her lead. So that was our foundation.
We all jelled right away! After practices we’d hang with each other all the time. We’d have these long conversations about high school or last season or music, just anything. So lots of off-the-court vibes developed early. It was just real chill, like a family atmosphere, just genuine love. And that definitely showed up on the court during practices. Then we’d be organizing after-hours pickup games and going out to eat after practice. It all just kind of came together.
They made it easy on us coaches. With past teams sometimes maybe we had to manage egos or attitudes, or people getting upset about playing time. But this team? We really didn’t have to do a whole lot of managing. Everybody felt like they were integral to our success. And when you have that, you can do big things without even having to say anything about it, or having to set big goals.
I mean, did I want us to win the SEC regular season? Absolutely. Did I want to win the SEC tournament? Absolutely. Did we want to win a national championship? Absolutely. But those weren’t things that we talked about a whole lot. We just truly moved day to day.
From a player’s perspective, I can say that I had lots of team and individual goals, but honestly, my main focus was about redemption for last year, and getting this team back to where we belong — getting back to the excellence that this program is all about. Last season obviously didn’t go as planned, and so for me it was kinda like … let’s bring things back to that South Carolina standard.
I definitely feel like we did that this season as a group. But I gotta tell you, it was far from a given that it would happen. No one was gonna roll over for us. We were always gonna get the best everyone had to offer. And, actually, one of the big turning points of our season was when we found that out the hard way, when we got blasted by Indiana early on, down in the Virgin Islands.
I still get bothered thinking about that loss, to be honest. It shouldn’t have happened. We were coming off of a nice win, and I think we were just on our high horse thinking that no one was gonna beat us.
I put the blame for that one squarely on my shoulders. It was still early in the season, and for whatever reason I figured that with games on three consecutive days our team would be better off taking it easy at first when we got down there. I decided I was going to prioritize us being well-rested over practicing all-out and going hard like we always do. Looking back on it, I was just wrong. We needed to be practicing full steam ahead and coming together as a team at that point.
We were all mad at ourselves after that one because … that wasn’t us. That game … that wasn’t how we play. We were just so flat. The effort level wasn’t where it needed to be.
I remember after that game I had a long talk with Ty. I was well aware of how critical she was to our team, and that we were at a crossroads after that loss. Things could’ve gone one of two ways right then. I knew that if we followed up that game with another loss, everything could’ve gone downhill fast because we were such a young squad. So I basically sat Ty down and challenged her to take control of the team. It was like: “You’re our leader. These girls are going to listen to you. They trust you and believe in you. They will follow your lead. Take control. They’ll do whatever you want them to do, but you have to lead them. You can’t be passive. You have to take charge. Right now! This isn’t about later, or down the line. It has to happen now!”
I basically sat Ty down and challenged her to take control of the team.
Yeah … and you took away our Subway!
Hahahahaha. Come on now! I mean, sure, I admit it: I got mad the next day. I was still fuming about how we had played. And the Subway thing? Put yourself in my shoes, Ty. We just played a terrible game and the next day — a game day — at shootaround I look over and see our support staff carrying in all these Subway sandwiches. And these aren’t the little ones, either. I’m talking the footlongs. The real deal. And everyone’s all grinning and getting ready to dive in like it’s just a regular fun day. I’m sorry … no!
It was like: “NO SUBWAY SANDWICHES! NO WAY! WE’RE DOING PROTEIN SHAKES!!!!!!”
It was rough. We lost out on our sandwiches. That was definitely no fun. But looking back on it now, I’m kinda happy we lost that game. Of course, at the time I was upset about it, but we probably needed that loss to get us refocused and back to being levelheaded and knowing we had to always work hard. We couldn’t go on thinking we were this high-and-mighty team that couldn’t get beat. We learned that we had to give everything we had every single game.
And I gotta say: Our players’ response was incredible. We answered back in a big way. And, to me, that was all about leadership. I thought that if Ty responded and brought everyone with her it would be a real turning point for us — that it could set us up nicely for the rest of the season. And that’s what happened. By the next game, the Baylor game, I’d calmed down, and we did indeed give everyone Subway footlongs on that day. So they got their sandwiches, O.K. From that point on, there was just a ton of winning for us, a ton of great team basketball.
That victory against Baylor is definitely one of my favorite moments of the season. It was obviously a huge win for our program, but for us as players, as people, it was also just beyond important because that game was all about Ty. We were still reeling from the Indiana loss, and Ty … she needed to take over and reassert herself. So with that game, that’s exactly what she did. It was like, Hey, in case you forgot how dominant I can be … here you go. She needed that type of game. But, really, we all needed that. And she brought it. And then, from there, she just kept having games like that one. We knew we would be tough to beat with Ty in top form. So that game absolutely set the tone for the rest of the season.
When we started stacking all those wins, and beating so many big-time teams, it felt so good. It just kept building. It was like … Baylor, Kentucky, Mississippi State, UConn, and on and on. Not many people outside of our locker room thought we could win all those games. But when we came together as a unit and put our minds to it, we were unstoppable. What we went through with that Indiana loss, and just the memory of it, is what kept us focused. We made it like us vs. the world.
It was pretty cool to see how, before every game, we would all get super focused and locked in. It was just really fun playing with this group of ladies. We got so close and had each other’s backs. Everybody was genuinely happy for each other and having so much fun during that winning streak.
For me, as a freshman, it was unreal. Everyone had been telling me how SEC play was going to be completely different from nonconference, so I was excited to experience it. And to go out and get win after win, in such a competitive conference? It was incredible. I’ll never forget how fun that time was. We beat so many good teams. Top teams.
Even from really early on, though, I feel like there was a sense among the players that we could hang with anyone. I remember that Maryland game, second game of the season. We’re heading into their place, we’re being talked about as the underdogs, and … we just show up and beat the odds. We knew we could do it if we stuck together and didn’t listen to any of the outside stuff. And we came out on top. Right then, for me, it was like, O.K., this team might be able to do some things.
And if we’re talking about season-defining wins, I gotta just remind y’all about this one real quick, and how much energy this team generated in our building that night….
Zia straight-up skies to make an amazing play and seal the win against Mississippi State, and then our fans just go absolutely nut.
Then, when we get that team again in the conference tournament final? At that point we were almost like a machine. We were so focused and disciplined. It was almost like we all had one brain. And the coolest part was the way Kiki stepped up and grabbed the tournament MVP. That was THE BEST! It was so well-deserved. I was so happy for her. I’ve seen how hard she works and how much she cares. We all, all of us, we see each other grind and struggle, day in and day out. We see the ups and downs. So when something like that happens, you can’t help but be overjoyed for a person you’ve seen put in work all season long. That will definitely always be one of my favorite moments of the season, finding out Kiki got the MVP.
Yeah, I feel like even though we didn’t get a shot at the tournament, we’ll all definitely have memories like that one that we’ll still be talking about when we’re old-timers. And even just off-the-court stuff as well, because, y’all … we had fuuuuuuun!
No one should sleep on our TikToks, that’s for sure. And I honestly feel like we kind of started the wave of that stuff in the women’s game. Like that should be part of our legacy, too! I mean we did that one dance with Coach, and put it out there, and then after that I just started seeing those videos pop up from a bunch of teams.
And those arrival outfit photos? I mean….
Same thing there, yeah. I mean we were innovators with that stuff, for sure. No other college players or teams were doing that sort of thing until we posted ours. So, I hope that when people look back on this season they definitely remember us as winners first and foremost. But also, like, you know what … we can dance!!!!! And we were super creative. So hopefully we’re remembered as innovators, too!
You know what? When we start talking about what people will remember, and about the legacy of this team, it’s really tough for me not to get emotional. As a coach, you always hope for certain things in a team. And this group? They had all of those things: passion for the game, great skill, incredible leadership, unselfishness, a love for one another, and on and on. I know in my heart that we had a legit shot — a GREAT shot — at winning the national championship with these ladies. They believed in one another. And they fully believed that they were about to win it all. You could see it in their eyes and hear it in how they talked. It’s an amazing feeling coaching a team like that.
So first and foremost I’m just sad for this group of ours — that they weren’t able to get that shot. They weren’t able to show the world what they could do on the biggest stage in our sport. Just tremendously sad.
And then there’s….. yeah, like I said above, I gotta be honest and say that I’m also, at the same time, just straight up angry.
I truly believe that this incredible squad we had — this powerhouse TEAM of talented women — did not get the national respect and media coverage that they deserved. And to me that’s a problem. And it’s also part of a much larger problem, just in terms of the way that women’s sports are being covered in general.
The problem I have is that, even when women’s sports do get covered, it’s on the most limited terms. It’s like the media will pick one storyline they like in the preseason, and then for the rest of the season they’re tapped out — that’s the only lens through which they’ll view our sport. And, man….. I just have a news flash for those people: Knowing that one or two great players exist? That doesn’t mean you’re covering our sport right. Knowing that UConn exists?? That doesn’t mean you’re covering our sport right. And starting to pay attention at the Final Four?? That most definitely doesn’t mean you’re covering our sport right.
Covering women’s college basketball means covering women’s college basketball: the ups, the downs, the surprises, the disappointments, the old rivalries, the new rivalries, the star players, the role players — all of it. And to anyone reading this right now and saying to themselves, But women’s basketball isn’t as popular as men’s, simple as that — really take a second and think about that logic. You’re saying we’re not as popular … so we shouldn’t get as much coverage. But how does a sport ever get popular in the first place? COVERAGE. Come on, y’all.
Our players straight up deserved better.
They deserved to be covered and reported on in the way that would normally be the case if a team was having the type of season we were. And now they won’t even have a chance to ball out in the Tournament, and make everyone who ignored them look foolish.
It’s just beyond unfortunate. This team….. this JUGGERNAUT….. from Ty, to Kiki, and on down to all our younger players….. so many more people should have gotten to know about them. So many more people should have gotten to know what they accomplished this year.
And, by the way, our local media did a tremendous job covering us. And there’s a handful of national figures, and a bunch of people I see online and on social media and whatnot, who really do get it. Those people are growing the sport. But for the most part? Nah. I’m sorry, but nah. Try harder. Do better. Expand your damn horizons.
Tell the stories that deserve to be told.
Beyond that though, in the end, I want this team — this group of CHAMPIONS — to be remembered as odds-beaters, and grinders, and a team in the truest sense. Our players were selfless. They worked hard. They practiced hard. And they played the most exciting brand of basketball I’ve ever seen. Those ladies had our arena jumpin’, O.K.? They found their highest level and it was beautiful.
Everyone will remember this season for the pandemic that canceled the NCAA tournament, and we’ll remember this moment in history for the suffering and for the courage of those who will help us turn the corner to get back to a place where sports can be our focus again.
When that time comes, do me a favor, y’all.
Please remember that something RARE happened over these last few months down in Columbia, South Carolina.
Please remember that these ladies did something truly special.
I know I won’t ever forget it.