Women’s basketball needs a wider frame — Hear from South Carolina after winning the national title — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 6, 2022

Happy Basketball Wednesday! South Carolina is your champion. As I reflected on the weekend I just spent in Minneapolis, covering the 2022 Women’s Final Four, one framing I kept on hearing reverberated for me.

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The 64-49 win by South Carolina over UConn was treated in many circles like more than just a championship. It treated the win like a passing of the torch, the implicit message not only that South Carolina is the dominant program, but that there must, at any time, only BE one dominant program.

It felt a lot like the conversation around South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark earlier this season. The idea seems to be that when the coverage of women’s basketball is so limited, the expectation can and should be that there needs to be one story with supremacy over all the others.

That’s not going to cut it.

We need to understand Dawn Staley’s program for what it is: a self-built reflection of Staley’s ability to create infrastructure and success wherever she goes. I’ve often spoken about how you can draw straight lines from virtually any moment in women’s basketball, subtract 40 years, and find the men’s equivalent, that gap reflecting delayed opportunities. If you don’t see Staley and South Carolina in terms of John Thompson Jr. and Georgetown, a marriage of success and social justice indelibly linked, I cannot help you.

But such a moment does not mean it is time for Geno Auriemma and UConn to exit stage left, much as those critical of the program for building both a successful run that will never be equaled and a model that Staley herself said she has followed want it to be. Auriemma and UConn are Wooden and UCLA, of course, and Wooden decided to retire on top.

For Auriemma, the work goes on. I was struck once more by how enthusiastic he was in the moments after a draining season, Auriemma clearly battling a cold himself, his team battered by injuries and illness right to the final buzzer. It was no different following the 2016 NCAA Tournament, a point many thought Auriemma might decide was a time to leave, too: four straight titles, sending Breanna Stewart on to the WNBA. He didn’t, and his enthusiasm that night was palpable.

So, too, was he as he spoke to a small group of us in a back corridor of Target Center after his podium press conference ended. I asked him how that is even possible.

“It gets harder to be honest with you,” Auriemma said. “It gets harder to anticipate what can happen the following season because it’s a different world now. You have so many variables that go into how a team is put together. You used to have a pretty good idea. This is the team we have, this is the team we’re going to have, and nothing’s going to change that. It’s so much different. It’s just there’s too many things different now.

“But… you started thinking about the number of freshmen and sophomores that we played today and played a lot of minutes and really got an education today and what it takes to win at this level and I remember being in that situation. But a bunch of years ago, we lost with a bunch of young kids, and we came back and won the following year. So you cross your fingers and you hope that the lessons that were learned this weekend carry over into May, June, July and throughout the rest of the year.”

There’s every chance South Carolina prevails again next year. There’s an opportunity for UConn, returning Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd and many others while adding, to dethrone them. There’s Tara Vanderveer and Stanford, bringing back that elite team. And do not lose sight of Louisville, who will center their team around the incredible Hailey Van Lith, either. (UCLA’s NIT run plus top two prospects has me intrigued already, too.)

And yet. There was a question from one reporter this weekend, directed to Geno and Tara, about where the younger coaches are, an impossibly strange framing at a Final Four where the other two coaches, Dawn and Jeff, are just over 50, a year removed from 43-year-old Adia Barnes taking the world by storm, while Courtney Banghart at UNC and Kim Barnes Arico at Michigan both had extended NCAA Tournament runs. Aaron Johnston’s been at South Dakota State forever, but he’s still under 50 as his Jackrabbits won the WNIT. Nicki Collen just won the Big 12 regular season title; she’s 46. So is Princeton’s Carla Berube. What an incredibly narrow lens it takes to think there aren’t young stars in coaching in this game. It is the one too many are used to.

Maybe the best way to think about what women’s basketball actually deserves is to think through the coverage of UNC-Duke on the men’s side this weekend. Was there a lot about Coach K? Absolutely. Did we learn a ton as well about Hubert Davis, about this UNC group, along with Paolo Banchero and the Blue Devils? You bet.

Did anyone talk about the UNC-Duke game in terms like: only one of these programs will be relevant going forward? Of course not. In fact, so much of the conversation consisted of the idea of bragging rights, the implicit idea present that both will matter forever, and here’s a data point one side or the other can point to.

It was Willie, Mickey AND the Duke in 1950s New York baseball. Not Willie, Mickey OR the Duke.

This is the way we need to think about women’s basketball. UConn and South Carolina will always matter now, as does Tennessee, as will countless other programs that have built a history and continuing investing in the future. There is no one player, one team. There’s a thriving game that keeps expanding its audience and contains multitudes.

What I felt as I flew home Monday night was gratitude. I know there are Geno people and Dawn people, but I know that for me, it’s going to matter forever that I had the opportunity to cover both these giants of the sport. It’s a weekend I learned from them, from Tara, from Jeff Walz, while seeing so many of the relationships they’ve built and the effect they’ve had on the game on display. It is a rare privilege — there will be more and better women’s basketball in the decades ahead, but these folks built first. It matters.

And so in the same way the mission of what we do here at The IX and The Next is to build a bigger sandbox, to allow for that lens to pan out so more people can get in the shot, can be seen and heard, I urge you all to think about women’s basketball that way, whatever your team allegiances. Let’s celebrate greatness without using it as a means of limiting who gets to claim it.

And for the love of god, think bigger.

This week in women’s basketball

Interesting look at Chiney Ogwumike’s life from Ben Golliver.
Paul Doyle on new Hall of Famer Swin Cash.
Wonderful from Ben Pickman on Cheyney State.
The future is bright in Tucson.
Loved this from Katie Barnes on Destanni Henderson.
Lindsay Gibbs covered the coverage, so I guess this is me covering the coverage of the coverage.
Must-read from Jonathan Tannenwald on Dawn Staley’s reflected glory.
Kyra Buckley tackles what it will take to get the WNBA back to Houston.
Jackie Powell with the sights and sounds from the final.
Not all the reasons Jacy Sheldon is special can be found on the court.
I wrote about WNBA alums in NBA roles.
And a three-step Russ Steinberg set of links for you:
2002 UConn: https://boardroom.tv/uconn-womens-basketball-2002-legacy/
Ways to improve both tournaments: https://boardroom.tv/ncaa-mens-womens-march-madness/
Q&A with Nneka: https://boardroom.tv/ogwumike-adidas-sparks-wnba/
Oh, Sedona Prince can do it all.

Five at The IX: Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson and Dawn Staley

Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson, Dawn Staley and the trophy. (Howard Megdal photo)

Q. Destanni, you seemed to take over really there in the third quarter. Every time they came back and cut into the lead, you were the one hitting the big bucket. How were you feeling out there and what did you see from their defense that made you say I can exploit this?

DESTANNI HENDERSON: I felt like my teammates put my in a good position to score the basketball. I found open gaps and when they collapsed in the paint, Aliyah or whoever it was that was passing the ball just found me out on the perimeter, and I just let it fly.

Q. To know that you guys have the target on your back, No. 1 team from the beginning of the season to the end, what is that a testament to?

ALIYAH BOSTON: I think it’s just a testament to our team and how good we are. I think Coach did a great job of scheduling us a hard nonconference schedule which kept us prepared and we were able to fight through all those games, so it shows you how determined we were to continue to be successful.

Q. Destanni, what the game expired and you realized you were a national champion, you just had a career-high performance and a great performance all around, how did you feel in that moment?

DESTANNI HENDERSON: I really didn’t even know I had a career high, to be honest with you. But when people spoke about it and let me know that, it’s just even more of a blessing and just an honor to do it in this moment, a special moment that all of us is going to remember forever.

I just feel like my teammates, again, I can’t thank them enough. My coach, for just putting me in the best position. These last two years has been the best two years of college basketball for me.

Q. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the idea of a sports dynasty and if you feel that you guys have kind of cemented your place in basketball history.

ALIYAH BOSTON: I definitely think we have. I think over the past couple years you’ve just been able to see this program and how it just continues to grow, and I think it’s just schools that kids are going to want to come to because of the atmosphere that we have here. Our fans are the best, and Coach Staley is one of the best coaches and she has a great coaching staff, and they just continue to push us every single day.

Q. Aliyah, you and the entire team have said throughout the season that this was the goal. With your being able to come back next year, what’s your goal for next year?

ALIYAH BOSTON: Same as this year.

Q. You’ve spoken on this podium so many times about if you can see it, you can be, and being a role model for Black coaches. And tonight in the wake of this win, so many Black women around the sport of women’s basketball have praised you for doing it. To hear the praise, what does that mean to you?

DAWN STALEY: You know, it really makes me emotional. It does, because I am their hope. Like I am their hope. I am the person that they strive — not me, just where I sit winning National Championships. That’s what they want to do.

If I can be that ray of hope, if I can be a vessel of theirs to them being successful, you know, I am a willing giver of this game, because the game has given me so much. I mean, so much. My cup runneth over when it comes to what the game has given to me, so I am forever in debt in trying to repay the game.

I do that with just giving them my time, my expertise or just my opinion on things to help advance young coaches of all colors.

Q. You’ve made it a point to say you wanted people to see Aliyah’s smile, not that crying face from last year. What did it mean to you to see her climb the ladder and cut down the net tonight? And how did you spend your day with a 7:00 p.m. tip-off? Did you get your hair done? Did you get your nails done?

DAWN STALEY: You know, I’m incredibly happy for Aliyah because, one, I think a player like Aliyah doesn’t realize her power. I think she’s really a nice young lady, and she wants everything to be smooth, smooth sailing. She doesn’t want any conflict. She’s not confrontational. When you are like that, you don’t really understand the power of being dominant. Like it’s such a — probably a masculine adjective.

Like to be dominant seems masculine. But it’s not. Very few athletes are able to be dominant, and when you are one of those athletes, if you don’t have somebody around you that recognizes it, they’ll allow you to just fly under the radar and blend in with other people who aren’t going to excel at the rate that Aliyah can excel.

I’ve been around a lot of great basketball players who have been dominant, and I saw it in her, and I would not allow her to be anything less than that, even if I had to hurt her. A lot of parents, they don’t want their children to hurt, and it’s almost a disservice to them. Like it hurts them. Like you have to put your child in an uncomfortable situation in order for them to grow.

I don’t think her parents — her parents are that way because they’re very disciplined. But from a basketball standpoint, I think I’m the perfect coach for her because I recognize what her gifts are and how to walk into that.

And then my day. I couldn’t sleep. I was up, so I walked an hour on the treadmill at 6:00, 6:00 to 7:00, then I packed my clothes up, packed my suitcase up, and then we had shootaround. I actually had some breakfast today. I usually don’t eat breakfast, but the eggs here are good, so I had breakfast, and then we had shootaround.

Then after shootaround, we played cards a lot. We played cards. We played cards for a few hours. Got my hair done, and then it was time for pregame. After pregame it’s just we’re getting ready for the game.

It was long. Could we have played this game at 3:00? Yeah, but I actually liked it. I liked that we were in primetime, one of two last games of college basketball, so I know — I hope it was watched by a whole lot of people. I’m just basking in our glory of winning the National Championship.

Q. I need to know will you be getting another dog, and if so, what will he or she be named?

DAWN STALEY: I’ve got a name picked out already. Whether or not Champ agrees on wanting a sibling, that’s a different story. It’s been four years, and he doesn’t get along with other dogs. I’ve got the name picked out. You want to know the name? The name is Natty. So just imagine, Natty, Champ, get over here. Sounds good, right?

(Editor’s note: it sure does, Dawn.)

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.