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South Carolina had just ended Creighton's Cinderella run last weekend in Greensboro, N.C., and the confetti was raining down like shards of a broken glass slipper.

To be sure: The job wasn't done.

Dawn Staley's team had advanced to its second consecutive Final Four and its fourth since the spring of 2015. When you've had that kind of success, when you already have one NCAA women's basketball title trophy in your office, just getting there — or here, to the Twin Cities — isn't enough.

But Staley grabbed some of the confetti and stuffed it into her hoodie.

"The confetti is just a tangible thing, as reminders of what you've accomplished," Staley said. "I've been a confetti collector for every championship we've had."

People who know Staley say her goals aren't only about wins and losses. Growing the game is as important as winning a game. Helping fellow women of color pursue their dreams as head coaches matters as much as helping her own team. When South Carolina won the national title in 2017, Staley sent pieces of the net she cut down to nearly 70 Black female coaches around the country.

A message: You can aspire to this, too.

If sometimes her goals are ethereal, sometimes a concrete reminder of where you've been is nice, too. Hence the confetti, gathered before the trip to Minneapolis with the goal of becoming the first Black coach — man or woman — to win multiple NCAA Division I basketball titles.

When describing what she does — and does well, as evidenced by Staley being named the Naismith Women's Coach of the Year for the second time Wednesday — she doesn't always use the word coach. "We are dream merchants for young people," Staley said after the Creighton game. "The young people on our team, they want to win. They want to go to Final Fours. They want to win national championships. We are creating lifelong memories."

'Ultimate point guard'

That is not to say Staley isn't competitive. She is from Philadelphia, after all, having grown up in the Raymond Rosen projects.

It is not possible to have Staley's résumé without a ferocious competitive streak. She won three Olympic gold medals as a player, another as a head coach.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve has known Staley for years. Reeve was an assistant for the WNBA team in Charlotte when Staley was the point guard there. They won Olympic gold together more than once. Reeve has succeeded Staley as head coach of Team USA.

When Reeve thinks of Staley's competitive streak, she goes back to the 2001 season when the Sting started the season 1-10 but finished it in the WNBA Finals.

"She willed that team," Reeve said. "She basically coached that team, as you would as a coach on the floor. She willed them to a playoff spot. Think about that. Starting 1-10 in a 32-game season. I still remember her running cross screens and down screens. Just the toughness to set those picks, and coming off them. She was the glue. It was one of the greatest things, from a leadership standpoint, I've ever seen."

Reeve could see it even then.

Staley revived the Temple program from 2000 to 2008 while still playing in the WNBA. She went to South Carolina and has built a national power.

Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen played against Staley early in her WNBA career and played for her when Staley was an Olympic assistant. She can remember the hours she, Staley and Reeve — all point guards — spent just talking about the game.

"The ultimate point guard," Whalen said. "Tough. She got into you physically. Being from Philly, she had to work for everything she's gotten. And as a coach? What hasn't she done? She continues to grow the game, change the game."

Despite her point guard background, Staley has become known for producing post players. Most recently current Gamecocks star Aliyah Boston, but also someone such as A'ja Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP.

Staley's sideline intensity sometimes suggests a coach from the old school. But, Reeve said, look behind the curtain: at Staley's ability to communicate, even with a new generation of players. Or the loyalty that showed in 2004 when, after earning her third gold medal with the Olympic team, she came back from Athens with bags of mementos to share with people back home. To the college coach who sent pieces of championship net around the country.

"She doesn't see the bad in people, but the good," Reeve said. "As a coach, she doesn't focus on what you can't do, but what you can. She wants to lift people up, especially the ones who have greater challenges."

Bigger picture dreams

Here's something more tangible than confetti: the seven-year, $22.4 million contract she signed last fall. Staley has earned it, every penny. When South Carolina tips off in the semifinals against Louisville on Friday night, Staley will be focused only on winning a second national title.

But, long term, it's about opening doors.

On Tuesday, Staley talked about her evolution in the game. From a young player who played only for the love of the game and the competition that came with it. As she moved into coaching, she started seeing a bigger picture.

Sell the game. Or at least the dream.

"I want to be known as, or remembered as, an odds beater," Staley said. "As you walk this path of whatever you're supposed to be, whoever you're supposed to be and wherever you're supposed to go, and whoever you're supposed to touch — I don't really think about it. I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do.

"I'm comfortable in my skin, and I'm comfortable being uncomfortable and making other people uncomfortable when it's the right thing. What I want to do is have a generational impact."

In 1999 Carolyn Peck became the first Black head coach to win an NCAA women's basketball championship with Purdue. In 2015, she had identified who might be the second. Staley was building a South Carolina powerhouse. So Peck sent a piece of her 1999 netting to Staley with a request. When you win yours, pass it on.

She did.

And, still, she does.

"I look at our league, the SEC, I think we have five [head coaches of color]," Staley said. "Nowhere in the country mirrors that look. We talk about it, the five of us. We lift each other up. We've got a group thread, and when anybody gets a big win, we're texting. Because we know if we don't — if we aren't successful — we go back. We go back down."