MINNEAPOLIS — Long before South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma ascended to the highest levels of women’s college basketball, the coaches in Sunday night’s national championship game honed their craft under the influence of Debbie Ryan, the former Virginia coach whose impact on both continues to resonate decades after they moved on from Charlottesville.
Staley was Ryan’s most decorated player, directing the Cavaliers to three Final Four appearances and one national championship game from 1989 through 1992 as the starting point guard. She completed her college career as Virginia’s all-time scoring leader and compiled the most assists in ACC history.
Four years before Staley arrived at Virginia amid much acclaim, Auriemma was serving in the last of his five years as an assistant under Ryan, who retired in 2011 with 739 career wins, 11 ACC regular season titles and seven ACC coach of the year awards.
“Debbie was great,” Staley said. “She allowed me to make mistakes through trial and error. It wasn’t like, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ She was like, you know: ‘In instances, here’s when you can do this. Here’s another option.’ I take some of my coaching to a certain degree in allowing our players to be who they are, meet them where they are and just take them to where they want to go, and that’s the mentality that Debbie had with me.”
Much like her coaching mentor, Staley has assembled an elite program from humble beginnings.
Top-seeded South Carolina had not been to an NCAA tournament in the five years before Staley took over as coach in 2008. Four seasons later the Gamecocks reached the regional semifinals. In 2017, they won the school’s first national championship.
This season, Staley has guided South Carolina (34-2) to a second straight Final Four and a fourth appearance in seven years. The Gamecocks’ winning percentage (.944) is the highest in program history apart from when they went 32-1 during a 2019-20 season in which there was no NCAA tournament amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“You have coaches that come in and out of your lives, and for her, Debbie knew how to treat me as a player,” Staley said. “I was a player from Philly. I was Philly through and through, didn’t really have the fundamentals down pat. I could play. I could pass. I’ve got flair to my game. I was just a hard-nosed player, one that she didn’t try to contain.”
Staley has adopted a similar approach to coaching her players during South Carolina’s run to the national championship game featuring four wins in the NCAA tournament by double digits. The closest margin the Gamecocks have faced was a 69-61 victory over North Carolina in the Greensboro Region semifinals.
Junior forward Aliyah Boston had 28 points and 22 rebounds in that game, setting an NCAA record for rebounds in the round of 16 or later. The national player of the year is coming off 23 points and 18 rebounds in a 72-59 win against Louisville in Friday’s national semifinal at Target Center.
Auriemma, meanwhile, has the second-seeded Huskies (30-5) in the national championship game for the 12th time. Connecticut is 11-0 in NCAA tournament finals and last won the title in 2016 to cap an unprecedented streak of four national championships.
The second-winningest coach in the sport’s history got his initial sampling of the NCAA tournament while on Ryan’s staff. The Cavaliers made their first appearance in 1984 and went again in 1985 before Auriemma departed to build the program in Storrs, Conn.
Ryan hired Auriemma after he spent two seasons as an assistant at Saint Joseph’s and three years as an assistant at Bishop Kenrick High, both in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, where he grew up.
“U-Va. was a different story, much bigger school, bigger everything, bigger expectations,” Auriemma said. “Just bigger in every way. So running a big program was something I had never experienced before. Recruiting at that level was something I had never experienced before. The organization that it takes to make that happen on a regular basis was completely new to me, and Debbie treated me like I treat my staff.”
Ten years after leaving Virginia, Auriemma found himself coaching against his mentor in the NCAA tournament’s region finals. Connecticut beat Virginia, 67-63, and then vanquished traditional powers Stanford and Tennessee to win its first NCAA title.
The Final Four that season took place in Minneapolis, where the Huskies are seeking a 16th straight win Sunday night in a season in which they had 11 starting lineups because of injuries and eight of 12 players on the roster who missed at least two games because of injury or illness.
“I’ve said this before: The world does funny things to you, man, if you’re around long enough,” Auriemma said. “But I think there were a lot of players, including Dawn Staley, that Debbie had a tremendous effect on. It’s probably no surprise that [Staley] went into coaching.”