- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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FRESNO, Calif. -- Coaches are sometimes reluctant to be completely honest with star players. That, however, was never an issue between Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley.
"I was hard on Dawn," VanDerveer, the Stanford coach, said Friday. "I've always said, sometimes a lot of the great players get the worst coaches, because no one wants to tell them anything. But I was always very direct with Dawn and I think she appreciated it."
Yes, if appreciation can be gleaned out of the intense desire to prove somebody wrong. Intense desire. How better to sum up Staley?
Back in the mid-1990s when VanDerveer coached Staley on numerous USA Basketball teams, she was the one who told the guard from Virginia that she turned the ball over too much. Staley took to putting a rubber band on her wrist and snapping it when she turned the ball over. She challenged Staley to be a leader. She challenged her to be a "student of the game."
And on occasion, she brought one of the most competitive players to ever play the women's game to tears. Turns out she was also grooming Staley, now the coach at South Carolina, for her eventual career. It's just that neither one of them knew it quite yet.
"My players now don't like me all the time either," Staley said with a laugh. "Tara is always honest. You may not want to hear it, but she will always tell you the truth."
And the truth is Staley is coaching in the biggest game of her career on Saturday night in Fresno. She is taking on her former mentor as South Carolina looks to knock off top-seeded Stanford (11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN3) at the Save Mart Center in Fresno. It is also a game that could redefine her program in a season in which they've already made some history.
Staley made three trips to the Final Four as a player, won three Olympic gold medals. But as a coach, this is entirely new territory. Her program is making its first NCAA appearance since 2003 and its second appearance in the regional semifinals.
Her feelings are a bit mixed about the opponent, but not because the Cardinal are the No. 1 seed in the region. Staley would never back down from that challenge.
"She's been tremendous for me personally and professionally," Staley said. "I've learned a lot of things from her, even coaching against her you still learn. You learn what she's thinking, the mismatches she's trying to create. The hard part is that more times than not, we've been on the defeated side."
But this is a new opportunity, with history on the doorstep. Advancing further into uncharted territory at the expense of her mentor's team is merely an interesting detail.
Still, Staley knows how prepared she is going to have to be, how ready her team will have to be to do it. Her former coach is one of the most meticulous scouters in all of college basketball.
"They are a calculated basketball team. They know what they want to do and what they want you to do," Staley said. "Tara's teams are always prepared. If I was a fly on the wall in their preparation and they were running through our stuff, they would probably run it better than we do."
The relationship between VanDerveer and Staley has changed through the years. The player-coach dynamic has been replaced by a peer relationship. Yet Staley still clearly looks up to the Hall of Famer. She sent VanDerveer a photo of herself carrying the flag in the 2004 Olympic games with a personal note. And Staley called her when she was getting ready to take her first head coaching job at Temple.
Staley said VanDerveer tried to talk her out of it. VanDerveer points out that Staley was trying to play in the WNBA and coach at the same time and she was merely advising her that she needed to be "all in."
But VanDerveer had to know she would be.
"She is one of the premier young coaches in our game. Dawn is special," VanDerveer said. "Look, her picture used to be on the side of a building in Philadelphia. She is big in our game."
The Gamecocks are also becoming a big story in Columbia. Staley threw out the first pitch at a South Carolina baseball game earlier in the week, tossing a strike from the rubber. Her team had a couple hundred fans send them off as they boarded their buses on campus for the trip to Fresno. T-shirts have been printed up with the phrase "I believe."
Staley was wearing one at Friday's news conference.
"We've been wearing it all season," Staley said. "I was sitting at lunch with the guy that does our printing talking about the season and he said 'I believe,' and I said 'Why don't you make us some shirts?' And that's how it came about."
On the court, South Carolina is playing its best basketball after putting up a season-high 80 against Eastern Michigan in the first round and beating Purdue in the second-round on the Boilermakers' home floor.
South Carolina ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense, and despite a size disadvantage, the Gamecocks will need to clamp down in a big way to earn the program's first win over the Cardinal and Staley's first over VanDerveer -- not to mention a trip to the Elite Eight.
Staley was 0-2 against Stanford as a player at Virginia, both games in the Final Four. She is 0-3 as a coach, first at Temple and then a pair of losses at South Carolina in 2010 and 2011.
South Carolina assistant Nikki McCray was on that 1996 Olympic team under VanDerveer as Staley's teammate.
She has been on Staley's staff since she came to South Carolina in 2008.
"Tara gave Dawn our team as an Olympian and told her, 'I have a lot of confidence in you to lead our team,'" McCray said. "Dawn has had success at every level. She's tough, she's a hit-first type of coach. She's not going to back down. She's the little engine that could. When she played the game, she played it with such intensity, such passion. Just like her team. We may not be the most talented team, but no one is going to outwork us and that's her stamp."
Staley chuckled as she came off the stage at Friday's news conference and she was asked about her history of playing chess games with VanDerveer. VanDerveer isn't sure Staley ever beat her. Staley remembers it a little differently.
"This is how I operate, if you continue to beat me at something, we won't stop playing until I win," Staley said. "So, I beat her once. I at least beat her once, because the law of averages says, something good is going to come out of it if you keep doing it."