S.C.'s Staley shares NCAA Tournament triumph with loyal FAMS upon return home


COLUMBIA - Dawn Staley proudly marched her latest NCAA championship trophy in front of the wild, cheering "FAMS" who've supported her throughout South Carolina's rise from SEC also-ran to three-time tournament winners.

About 7,500 fans, who Staley and her team have called "FAMS," for the love and loyalty they bring, turned out at midday - and amid an eclipse - to celebrate the Gamecocks 87-75 victory over Iowa to win the NCAA Tournament.

"It's an incredible honor to come back to this," Staley said Monday, a day after the victory that finished off a 38-0 season. "To come back to you."

It has been a slow burn to fill the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks averaged 6,371 fans in 2013-14 when they went 30-5 and lost in the Sweet 16. A season later, Staley signed Columbia area standout A'ja Wilson and the crowds and titles followed.

Wilson was the centerpiece of a group that won four straight Southeastern Conference tournament titles and the NCAA crown in 2017. And all the while attendance boomed.

South Carolina drew an average of 16,067 this season to lead the country, the 10th straight year it has led the way in average attendance. Staley has taken care to shout out her fanbase throughout the team's championship run.

"That's because Dawn Staley was raised right," said Lloyd Yaun of Graniteville, who traveled an hour or so to welcome the team home.

The team has fed off their fans at home. South Carolina has won its last 60 games at home and is 77-1 there the past five seasons.

"They appreciate what you bring to this building," South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said. "They never, ever lose when you're here."

The Gamecocks don't lose too often anywhere else, either. They began the year with a win in Paris over Notre Dame, then won in 12 other states wrapping things up in Cleveland to complete the sports' 10th-ever perfect season.

Staley gave the fans some insight to the pregame prep for Iowa, saying her players were talking big before the game about how they were going to dominate the Hawkeyes.

When Staley got with her coaching staff before tip, she said, "We're either going to blow them out, or we're going to get blown out."

"Those first three minutes, we got blown out," Staley told them, "But those last 37 ..." as the crowd's cheers drowned out the coach's words.

Then Staley left the podium with the championship trophy for the slow, satisfying tour as adoring fans took pictures or simply touched the symbol of success many of them were there for.

Karen Braggs of Columbia said she does not get to as many South Carolina games as she'd like, but wanted to be on hand to tell Staley and the team thanks for another championship run.

Despite the Gamecocks losing such pivotal players like All-Americans Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke from last year's team, Braggs had little doubt South Carolina would succeed this season.

"It's because Dawn Staley knows how to get those girls in and how to get them playing well," Braggs said with a smile.

The party was not over when Staley and the team left. Several students jumped in the fountain outside the arena next to the statue of current two-time reigning WNBA champion Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces.

And Staley said her team's not finished winning.

"We hope that this is an annual day off," she said.