Dawn Staley Says ‘Nobody Thought’ South Carolina Would Win the NCAA Championship This Year (Exclusive)

The head coach, who also won with South Carolina in 2017 and 2022, tells PEOPLE at Nike's AIR Experience in Paris that their success this year “was fairytale-ish”

<p>Thien-An Truong/ISI Photos/Getty </p> Dawn Staley

Thien-An Truong/ISI Photos/Getty

Dawn Staley

The oddsmakers may have had South Carolina as the favorite to win the NCAA championship this year, but head coach Dawn Staley didn’t see it that way. 

With a “very young, very inexperienced” team — five of her players moved on to the WNBA after last season, which ended in tough fashion with a surprise loss in the Final Four to Iowa — Staley says they felt like underdogs. 

“Quite honestly, God is funny. He's funny. We lose like we lost and then, he says, ‘Okay, you're going to have to believe me. I'm about to take you through something that no one's expected, not even you with a team that nobody thought would get back to the final four, let alone win the national championship and do it in an undefeated fashion,’ ” Staley, 53, tells PEOPLE at the Nike AIR Experience in Paris.

“It's fairytale-ish,” she continues. “It's, to me, godly. And that's just me, that's my personal feeling on it because there's no other way to explain it because it wasn't supposed to be. Lose all your starters, can't bring back a team.”

<p>Steph Chambers/Getty</p> Dawn Staley high-fives Raven Johnson

Steph Chambers/Getty

Dawn Staley high-fives Raven Johnson

Related: Women's NCAA Championship Scores More Viewers Than Men's Final — for the First Time Ever!

But everyone stepped up, from star (and likely no. 3 WNBA draft pick) Kamilia Cardoso to freshmen Tessa Johnson and MiLaysia Fulwiley, who combined for 28 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists as the Gamecocks beat Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes 87-75.

The victory left Staley, who became the first Black coach to win three women's basketball championships, incredibly emotional, and she needed several minutes to compose herself in the first postgame interview. The tears, she tells PEOPLE now, came because her “cup runneth over.” 

“When you're playing for a championship, you carry a heavy load. This load was probably a little heavier than others because of how it ended last year,” she says. “And I just wanted to erase the feeling that I had. I didn't like it.”

<p>Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty</p> Dawn Staley

Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty

Dawn Staley

Related: Coach Dawn Staley Wants to End 'Inequities' in Sports and Healthcare: 'We're Shaping Lives' (Exclusive)

Staley says that to her, this win in 2024, was “more for” the players who graduated and couldn’t realize their NCAA title dreams last year. 

“Those players gave me no issues. They made all the right decisions, they respected the game, they worked hard. Everything that you would ask, they did it without complaining. And for their careers to end the way that they did, I just needed to help them,” she explains.

“Obviously we, as competitors, we hold onto those losses a lot more than the wins and that will rock me a little bit,” she continues. “So much so that I've never watched the game. I've never watched the game from last year. And people ask me, did I watch the game from last year to help with it? No. Totally different team. And I just wanted to erase that feeling.”

<p>Gregory Shamus/Getty</p> Dawn Staley

Gregory Shamus/Getty

Dawn Staley

Related: Dawn Staley Thanks Caitlin Clark in Her NCAA Championship Speech for ‘Lifting Up Our Sport’

And with this year’s championship team, everyone did their jobs, says Staley, who will next coach the USA women’s basketball team at the Paris Olympics.

“Everybody stayed in character. We stayed in character. The people who write the stories about women's basketball, they stayed in character and the only part is, the ending was different,” the coach says, adding, “Which I much prefer.”

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