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Final Four: South Carolina coach Dawn Staley achieves her dream, and now she can pay it forward

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley signals to

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley signals to her players during the first half against Mississippi State in the final of NCAA women's Final Four college basketball tournament, Sunday, April 2, 2017, in Dallas. Credit: AP / Tony Gutierrez

DALLAS — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has three Olympic gold medals and a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But there was something missing, something she had been chasing for more than 35 years: an NCAA championship.

On Sunday night at American Airlines Center, she finally caught it, earning her first national title as her Gamecocks beat Mississippi State, 67-55, in the national championship game.

And it meant the world to her.

“It means I can check off one of the things that has been a void in my career,” Staley said. “It’s one of two opportunities that I saw women play for when I was younger — national championship games and Olympics.

“Those were the things that I held dear and near to me when I was growing up, because those are the things that I wanted. That’s what I saw. That’s what I was shooting for.”

As a player, she came agonizingly close, leading Virginia to three Final Fours and advancing to the title game in 1991, only to lose to Tennessee, 70-67 in overtime. Despite the defeat, Staley was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“When I couldn’t get it done in college, I thought that was it,” she said. “I never wanted to be a coach. I never wanted to be sitting where I’m sitting.”

But that changed when she was named coach at Temple in 2000, and she led the Owls to six NCAA Tournament bids in eight seasons. She took over South Carolina’s program in 2008 and has built a powerhouse that has rumbled to six consecutive 25-win seasons — and now its first national championship.

And Staley’s too, of course.

“I never gave up on winning a national championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like,” said Staley, who is the first Final Four MOP to win a national title as a coach. She and Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who played for Louisiana Tech, are the only women to play and serve as a head coach in an NCAA final.

“I’m just so happy that I get a chance to share it with so many different people in my coaching and basketball family tree,’’ Staley said. “Coaches, former players, mentors, everybody . . . everybody.”

That includes one somebody in particular. In 1999, Purdue’s Carolyn Peck became the first African-American woman to coach an NCAA basketball champion. Staley is the second.

Peck later became a basketball analyst for ESPN, and a few years ago, when she met Staley in that capacity, she offered a gift.

“She gave me a piece of her net, her national championship net,” Staley said, holding the snippet of cord aloft. “She told me to keep it. I’ve had it in my wallet for years. She said, ‘When you win your national championship, just return it.’

“Now I’m going to have to pass a piece of my net on to somebody else so they can share and hopefully accomplish something as big as this. I do have to give a shout-out to Carolyn Peck — and I will return her net, thankfully.”

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