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'Train keeps on moving': After 500 wins, South Carolina's Staley is full steam ahead

John Harris
American-Statesman Correspondent
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley talks to her players during the Gamecocks' 79-53 win over Mercer in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome on Sunday. The victory was Staley's 500th in her coaching career.

SAN ANTONIO — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley celebrated her 500th career victory Sunday with a sentimental reflection about the players under her watch who made it all possible.

"It's a great milestone," said Staley following the top-seeded Gamecocks' 79-53 win over No. 16 seed Mercer at the Alamodome. "It means you've been coaching a long time and you had some great players. But 501 sounds nice and on and on and on."

South Carolina (23-4) faces No. 8 seed Oregon State in the Round of 32 on Tuesday.

Staley has averaged 23.8 wins in her 21 combined seasons at South Carolina and Temple. She won a national championship in 2017 and has won four outright regular-season SEC titles. Last season, South Carolina was 32-1, ranked No. 1 in the country and the consensus favorite to win the national championship. However, the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus.

"From my Temple days to my South Carolina days, I can count all of them that played a role in this milestone and obviously I'm forever indebted to them," Staley said.

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One of them, 6-foot-5 sophomore Aliyah Boston, reflected recently in The Players Tribune how Staley told her players to put last year behind them, forget about what could have been, and concentrate on bringing home the title this year.

"The train keeps on moving," said Boston, repeating Staley's mantra to her team.

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston looks to pass under pressure from Mercer guard Shannon Titus during the Gamecocks' 79-53 win in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome on Sunday. Boston had 20 points, 18 rebounds and three assists in the victory.

Boston, who is 54-5 in her two seasons at South Carolina, put on a show against Mercer with 20 points, 18 rebounds and three assists in only 30 minutes.

She's the fulcrum in a new "Triple Towers" lineup created, in part, because of a season-ending injury to 6-2 senior Lele Grissett, also featuring 6-2 junior Victaria Saxton and 6-4 sophomore Laeticia Amihere. In their first appearance together, the frontcourt trio combined for 51 points and 32 rebounds on 20-of-34 shooting.

"I really like her being in there with us," said Saxton, who added 20 points and six rebounds. "She gives us a big presence at the three. We were looking at her to be able to attack and be a big guard and post up smaller guards in the paint."

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"I like the length," Staley said. "To play 6-5, 6-4, 6-2 is intimidating. Aliyah Boston and Victaria Saxton are used to playing their role for us, either on the blocks or the top of the key. We can create a mismatch and a size advantage with some of the things (Amihere) can do off the bounce. She can dribble. She can kick the ball out. She has great passing ability."

Staley may have history on her side.

Four years ago, when South Carolina won the school's first national championship in women's basketball, star center Alaina Coates suffered a late-season injury and was unable to play in the NCAA Tournament. This year, Grissett, another important senior, is sidelined after suffering an injury in the SEC championship game, opening the door for Amihere to play a new and expanded role.