South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley cuts down the net after the Final Four college basketball championship game against Iowa in the women's NCAA Tournament, Sunday, April 7, 2024, in Cleveland. South Carolina won 87-75. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Dawn Staley got around Caitlin Clark this time.

A year after South Carolina’s perfect season crashed with a semifinal loss to the sensational Clark in the Final Four, the Gamecocks, led by Staley, their fiery and fierce coach, finished the job with an 87-75 win over Iowa in the NCAA championship on Sunday.

This wasn’t necessarily about revenge, but it was nonetheless satisfying for South Carolina (38-0), which became the 10th team in history to finish undefeated.

It also gave Staley another national title — her second in three years — and made her just the fifth coach to win three, joining Geno Auriemma (11), Pat Summitt (8), Kim Mulkey (4) and Tara VanDerveer (3).

Beyond that, Staley entered an even more select club with Auriemma, Summitt, Mulkey and Jody Conradt as the only coaches to go unbeaten.

Not bad for a former All-American guard who went 0-3 in the Final Four at Virginia.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Staley became emotional and broke down crying as confetti fell from high above the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse court. This was the moment she had been waiting for since last April.

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Moments later, Staley danced before climbing the ladder and snipping the final pieces of net reserved for her. Clutching the rim with one hand, she posed for photos as Gamecocks players and their families saluted the coach who took them to the top.

The 53-year-old Staley doesn’t like to call herself coach, preferring “dream merchant” as her mission is to pave the path for her players — on and off the court.

She wanted this title for this year’s group, but just as badly for South Carolina’s beloved “Freshies” — Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson — who came up short a year ago at the hands of Clark, who scored 41 in a 77-73 win.

“It doesn’t always end like you want it to end, much like last year,” Staley said. “But my freshies are at the top of my heart because they wanted this. It’s awesome. It’s unbelievable.”

The AP’s Coach of the Year leaned on one of her new freshies as freshman guard Tessa Johnson scored a season-high 19 points and the Gamecocks clamped down on Clark, who scored 30 in the final.

South Carolina was too much for Iowa. Too much depth and too much size as All-American center Kamilla Cardoso scored 15 and added 17 rebounds as the Gamecocks outrebounded the Hawkeyes 51-29.

Always fashion forward, Staley wore a silver jacket for the title game after sporting Luis Vuitton from head to toe in the semifinals. She spent much of the first half with her hands shoved into her pants pockets as she fumed to the officials about some questionable fouls called against her team.

But Staley was able to relax after halftime as the Gamecocks, who were atop the AP Top 25 poll for four months, pulled away.

In her 16 years at the school, Staley has built South Carolina, which was once an also-ran in the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference, into a dynasty and the measuring stick for the women’s game.

And she’s done it her way.

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