Dawn Staley, South Carolina win women's NCAA Tournament over Mississippi State

Dawn Staley, South Carolina win women's NCAA Tournament over Mississippi State

DALLAS -- Dawn Staley is going to savor her first NCAA championship. It took her a long time to finally be able to raise the trophy over her head.

A'ja Wilson scored 23 points to help coach Staley and South Carolina win their first national championship with a 67-55 victory over Mississippi State on Sunday night.

Staley made the Final Four three times as a player at Virginia but never won. She also led the Gamecocks to the national semifinals two years ago before losing to Notre Dame.

"It means that I can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career," said Staley wearing the championship net around her neck in the postgame press conference. "Something I wanted to do. It was one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger -- national championship games and Olympics. Those were things that I held dear and near to me growing up. Those were the things I saw and were shooting for."

Wilson, a native South Carolina player who was Staley's biggest recruit ever, was the key. She was thrilled to help Staley get her first title.

"I can't put into words how much it meant to win the game for coach," Wilson said. "She's put in so much time and sweat into this. ... It really means something special to bring this back home for such a great person like coach Staley."

Once the final buzzer sounded, Staley had a long group hug with her coaching staff and then grabbed the trophy and paraded it around the court high over her head. She cut down the final piece of the net, waving it to the huge throng of Gamecocks fans while Wilson and Kaela Davis danced with the South Carolina band playing.

"You have to give tribute to the former players," Staley said. "Go back to my Temple days, they believed in our vision. We took that vision to South Carolina and that vision was we'll be national champions. If you stick with us and if you're disciplined, if you believe all these players believed in that. Happy our words came true to them."

Staley became just the second African-American coach to win a national championship. She joined Carolyn Peck, who won a title at Purdue.

Mississippi State had all the momentum on its side after a shocking win over UConn on Friday night that ended the Huskies' record 111-game winning streak. The Bulldogs couldn't muster the same effort against the Gamecocks. Morgan William, who had become the face of the tournament with the game-winner against the Huskies after a 41-point performance against Baylor, was held to just 8 points.

South Carolina (33-4) turned a 10-point halftime lead into a 45-31 advantage midway through the third quarter before the Bulldogs rallied. Mississippi State (34-5) slowly cut into its deficit, getting with 54-50 on Jazzmun Holmes' jumper. That brought a huge cheer from the thousands of Mississippi State fans who made the 8-hour trip from Starkville, Mississippi.

But that's as close as the Bulldogs could get.

The victory in front of a sellout crowd came one day after the Gamecocks men's basketball team lost in the Final Four in Phoenix.

Wilson, who grew up in South Carolina, blocked a shot on one end of the court and then hit a short jumper in the lane that started a 12-2 run to put the game away. Staley emptied her bench with less than a minute left and Wilson left with tears of joy. The junior center sees a repeat in the future for the Gamecocks, who return most of their core players.

"Man, just be with us next year, we're trying to be in this same spot next year, we're going to see how it goes," Wilson said after winning the most outstanding player award for the Final Four.

The Gamecocks won the title without star center Alaina Coates, who hurt her ankle in the SEC Tournament. She didn't even travel with the team to Dallas.

"Our players never fretted, `La' we got you a ring. We got you a ring," Staley said of Coates. "Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis they all believed in it. They spent a year getting to know our team, getting to know our system. Got the opportunity to play and we become national champions. It's incredible belief and discipline and can't thank them enough for choosing South Carolina."

It was the third loss for the Bulldogs against the Gamecocks this season. Mississippi State dropped a game in South Carolina in the regular season as well as the SEC Tournament title game.

"Today doesn't define us," said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, who is 0-9 in his career against South Carolina. "It certainly doesn't define this team or this season. We had a heck of a year. Obviously we've had some hard times dealing with them. Today was no different."

No team had a tougher road to the championship then the second-seeded Bulldogs. They were trying to become the third team in NCAA history to beat three number No. 1 seeds en route to the title. Tennessee did it in 1987 and Louisiana Tech accomplished the same feat a year later. The Bulldogs had already knocked off top-seed Baylor and UConn to get to the championship game.

This was the sixth time in NCAA Tournament history that teams from the same conference played for the national championship, including three by the SEC. Tennessee won both of those matchups, the last coming in 1996 when the Lady Vols beat Georgia.

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we payed y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."

Archbishop Wood basketball star Collin Gillespie signs with Villanova

Archbishop Wood basketball star Collin Gillespie signs with Villanova

Archbishop Wood's Collin Gillespie, the Philadelphia Catholic League's MVP, has signed a national letter of intent to attend Villanova and play for Jay Wright.

Gillespie, during his senior year, averaged 24.1 points per game. The 6-foot-2 guard lead Archbishop Wood to their first Catholic League title in school history and followed that up with a PIAA State Championship game victory -- also a first for the school. Along with the league MVP, Gillespie was named Player of the Year by the Philadelphia Daily News.

"We are excited to have Collin and his family join the Nova Nation," Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. "Collin comes from a great program at Archbishop Wood and has been well prepared by John Mosco. His guard skills, basketball IQ and winning instincts will be a welcome addition to our program."

Gillespie will join previously announced signees Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia) and Jermaine Samuels (Rivers School, Weston, Mass.) in Villanova's class of 2021.