Dawn Staley blasts ‘dangerous’ narratives about USC’s playing style at Final Four

Win or lose, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley knew she had to go to bat for her roster after Friday’s Final Four games.

So, when a reporter asked Staley about “the truth about her team” and its style of play after a 77-73 loss to Iowa in the national semifinals, she delivered a clear message about her majority Black roster to the sporting world at large — and one unnamed national media member in particular.

“We’re not bar fighters,” Staley said. “We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball on the court and off the court. And I do think that that’s sometimes brought into the game, and it hurts.”

Staley said she felt compelled to defend USC and the “dangerous” narrative about its physical style of play after hearing, through back channels, that a national media member had crossed the line while criticizing South Carolina at a Final Four event held Thursday. She did not say what those comments were.

“Some of the people in the media, when you’re gathering in public, you’re saying things about our team, and you’re being heard, and it’s being brought back to me,” Staley said. “And these are the people that write nationally for our sport.”

South Carolina’s two-time national champion coach clarified that she and her team aren’t above valid criticism, “but when you say things that you probably should be saying in your home on the phone or texting out in public and you’re being heard, and you are a national writer for our sport, it just confirms what we already know. So watch what you say when you’re in public and you’re talking about my team in particular.”

USC, the reigning national champion, entered Friday’s Final Four game against Iowa a perfect 36-0. The Gamecocks, led by Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and star forward Aliyah Boston, were among the nation’s top defensive and rebounding teams all season.

But the Gamecocks’ luck ran out against the Hawkeyes, who advanced to Sunday’s national championship game at American Airlines Center behind star guard Caitlin Clark’s 41 points and eight assists. Iowa’s win snapped a 42-game USC winning streak dating back to the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

South Carolina Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston (4) is guarded by Iowa Hawkeyes forward McKenna Warnock (14) in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airline Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.
South Carolina Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston (4) is guarded by Iowa Hawkeyes forward McKenna Warnock (14) in the NCAA Tournament Final Four game at the American Airline Center on Friday, March 31, 2023.

Postgame, Boston expressed frustration toward the same “physicality” narrative that Staley alluded to and has spoken out against multiple times in recent seasons, including before and after South Carolina’s 81-77 win at UConn on Feb. 5.

“I feel like every time teams get ready to play us, there’s always that agenda of, we are so physical,” Boston said. “We can take all the aggression. So I think that that was being let go a lot, but I don’t think it was anything different. I think it was just a very physical game.”

Boston picked up two early fouls and only played eight first-half minutes as a result; she picked up a third foul early in the third quarter and finished what was possibly her final game at South Carolina with eight points on 2-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds.

Boston could return to South Carolina for a fifth and final season of eligibility or declare for the 2023 WNBA Draft, where she is the projected No. 1 pick. Staley said she’d encourage Boston to go pro, partially because of the way she’s been officiated as a college basketball player.

“I’m going to tell her to go,” Staley said. “There are defenses that are played against her that won’t allow her to play her game. And then it’s hard to officiate that. It’s hard to officiate that.”

Meeting with local reporters outside South Carolina’s locker room after her formal news conference, Staley reiterated that narratives surrounding her team’s physicality are “dangerous.”

“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “But, you know, sports is a microcosm of our society and sometimes there are hurdles you just can’t cross.”

As an undefeated team, South Carolina was the subject of criticism from other fan bases all season, but some remarks ventured into derogatory terrain and racial undertones, The State previously reported. In January, screenshots circulated from a UConn Facebook group showed some fans calling USC players “thugs” and saying they play “street ball.”

“We’ve been called so many things,” Staley said on her radio show in February. “I’m sick of it. I’m sick of it because I coach some of the best human beings that the game’s ever had.”

After Friday’s Final Four loss, Staley emphasized that South Carolina’s “not changing” despite criticism of its playing style. Over the past four seasons, a stretch defined by Boston and the rest of USC’s No. 1 ranked 2019 recruiting class, the Gamecocks have gone 129-9 over the last four seasons and appeared in three consecutive Final Fours.

“It is what it is, but we’re going to keep pushing forward because that’s what we do,” Staley said. “We’re built for it. I think that’s probably the attitude people take: We can handle it, we’re built for it, this is what we do. But a night like tonight, you really can’t overcome it.”