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March 31, 2022

Dawn Staley

Zia Cooke

Brea Beal

Victaria Saxton

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Target Center

South Carolina Gamecocks

Semi-Final Media Conference

DAWN STALEY: Super excited to be here. Congratulations to all the other teams, and actually congratulations to everybody that made it to the NCAA Tournament. They provided an opportunity for us to represent on the third weekend of our tournament, and we hope to make everybody proud by putting on a competitive game and an exciting game because that's what our fans deserve.

Q. At this point in the season, how much do you tweak preparing for the opponent or is it pretty much we're going to do what we do best?

ZIA COOKE: A little bit of both. We definitely work on ourselves, but we do practice to know our opponent, to know exactly what we need to do on defense, how can we score on offense. Just an all-around combination of both.

Q. Coach, regarding the fans, I know they hold a special place in your heart. A message from you and our student-athletes on how much you appreciate those who couldn't be here but those who are moving heaven and earth to be here by any means necessary.

DAWN STALEY: I mean, we build our fan base on their willingness to budget. They budget for season tickets. They budget to go to NCAA tournaments, regional sites. They budgeted to come to Minnesota before we were even a part of being in the Final Four, and they put a lot of pressure on us to make sure that we got here.

They've been with us. Not just this year, they've been with us when we weren't a popular team or we weren't a whole lot to cheer about. This is my 14th year being at South Carolina, but the last probably 10, the fans have given us a ride that's kind of irreplaceable, given our student-athletes an experience like no other by filling our arena and traveling well with us.

Q. I wanted to hear from the student-athletes on that same question.

ZIA COOKE: I totally agree with Coach. I've been here for three years and I've gotten a lot of love from our fans. It's gotten to the point to where I kind of know some of them personally. I know if I needed anything from some of our fans, they would definitely do it for me and for the rest of our girls, so I'm definitely appreciative of them and thankful for them.

Q. Coach, I wanted to ask you if you saw or heard Paige Bueckers' speech at the ESPYs where she called for more recognition for coaches of colors. I was wondering how you felt about that and hearing that message from her.

DAWN STALEY: Yeah, I did hear it. I didn't hear it live, I heard it on social media, and I'm going to say this. She's not a child, but children and old people, they speak truth to power, and if Paige recognizes it, she's got a powerful voice in our game. If they haven't listened to some of the older coaches, the four mothers of our game, the legendary people, the coaches, the players -- if people haven't listened to them, let's hope they listen to Paige and adhere to her words because they hold true. When it happens, when opportunities happen, I'll get to sit here and talk to you and represent women's basketball on the biggest stage, and I am a Black women.

Q. We have been having a lot of conversations for the last year about equity in the women's game compared to the men's game. At USA Today we crunched a lot of numbers and found out overall that schools spend a lot more money on their men's teams than their women's teams, even when their women's teams are really successful. South Carolina is the opposite of that, they spend a lot of money on their women. I wondered if you had a comment on the overall state of things and what advice do you give to young coaches when they come to you and say, we're not being treated equitably at my school, I don't know what to do?

DAWN STALEY: Yeah, that's -- I think at South Carolina, our success has allowed us to probably hit the budget a little bit more than most, and our administrators are for giving our student-athletes an incredible experience. A lot of times I don't know what the budget is for the men. I know that we need certain things. It may not be equal to the men. It's equitable, but we don't really feel it that much at South Carolina.

But if there's a young coach out there that is experiencing things -- I know they do. Like it's all over the country. One, you've got to win. Winning will help some. Then I think in other cases that's just the way it is, and that's the way that you have to -- you need your job, so if you need your job, you have to find ways to forge relationships with people that make those decisions.

I think we have probably the best DBO in the country, Cynthia Jordan, who they know her by name. She's built a relationship with them, and if they say no, they'll follow up with, we'll figure out a way to get it done.

It's all about the relationships. You've got to make people feel good, and you have to make it make sense to them. And more times than not, if you're winning, you know your administrators will find a way.

Q. Dawn, you touched upon the fans, but kind of a follow-up question. You guys have led the nation in attendance every year, I believe, since 2015. Obviously winning has played a role. But what are some of the factors as to why the Gamecocks' women's basketball team has been able to captivate the community so much and develop such a great fan base down there?

DAWN STALEY: I mean, it's about building relationships, and what we've done a long time ago was just mom-and-pop, actually. You spoke about what the budgets are for men's and women's basketball for marketing. Stark difference. Even on our campus, stark difference.

We took matters into our own hands. We invited our fans into our offices. We create opportunities for them to get to know us as people, and then in return, word of mouth, they bring friends. They buy season tickets just to have, just to invite people to our games. And once you come into our environment, it looks like no other. It looks like no other sporting event on our campus, and that's a mixture of all kinds of races and ethnicities, and I know a lot of friendships have been forged because of the environment that we create within our arena.

It is access. We give our fans access to us, and in return, they fill our arena.

Q. Brea, what's it like -- a program that was unheralded not that long ago, you draw more fans than UConn, more fans than Tennessee. What is that like that it's become kind of a women's basketball dominated area down there?

BREA BEAL: Yeah, it's kind of crazy because you really feel the love in the community. You can go to the store and run into somebody and they're like, oh, my gosh, just freaking out. It's like a family. That's the most important thing. You're playing in front of people that support you 100 percent, and it's about the engagement after games, waving to them, getting to know them. Like Zia spoke on I got to know a few personally, and they're just great people.

Q. Dawn, you've called Laeticia one of your most versatile players. She can play post, she can play guard. How valuable is a player like that when you get to this juncture in the tournament?

DAWN STALEY: I mean, it's a real luxury to have LA because she can do so many things. I really don't think she's actually scratched the surface as to the player that she's going to become. I think probably the college game -- the court is probably a little bit too small for her. There's a lot of zone being played, a lot of sagging, so you don't really get the feel for what she can really do. There are spurts where she just looks incredible. Like I truly believe in her.

I believed in her after her first ACL. I believed in her after her second ACL. Because I know she is not only incredibly smart, she's got a gift and she's got a curse. She's super stubborn. Stubborn has got her through two ACLs, and I'd rather have them wired that way than where you've got to motivate. You don't have to motivate her. She comes to practice and games ready to rock and roll. She's that aggressive player that you always need somebody like that in your locker room.

Q. I see a lot of you guys nodding your heads. What's it like playing with a player like that on the court?

VICTARIA SAXTON: I love playing with her. Just knowing she can handle the ball outside the paint or inside the paint, it's exciting. I love watching it. I enjoy it. I'm ready to see her dunk, of course, in a game like everybody else, so we're looking forward to that coming.

Q. Dawn, we've heard all season that last season is last season, but at the same time, too, you guys are human. Do you think about that at all in terms of a chip, in terms of any kind of motivation to be able to get back here, and if it did disappear, when did that disappear going back to last year?

DAWN STALEY: For me, last year is in the past. I think what anyone does is you compartmentalize it. It is there as part of your journey. So good, bad, or indifferent, it's a part of who we are. Like it was supposed to happen. Our paths are divinely ordered, so we've got to take the good and the bad and the disappointments just like we take the celebratory experiences.

No, I don't think about it. The only time I think about it is when it's brought up.

But we're not really motivated by that. We're motivated by what we've been able to do this year and the habits that we've been able to create and perform night in and night out, and we just hope that our habits are much stronger than our opponents' on any given day.

Q. Dawn, how challenging is it for a player like Destiny Littleton to keep herself engaged and ready to go when you put her in a game, especially when you're looking for some instant offense from her?

DAWN STALEY: Yeah, it's hard. It's hard. You have to be mentally tough in order to handle Destiny's role for our basketball team. Here's a trick. You've got to tell them the roles very early on, and then you have to remind them that this is what it is. We've asked all of our players, every single player, we've asked to make a sacrifice, to make this year special.

Sometimes that's playing a whole lot. Sometimes it's playing a little. Sometimes it's playing -- not playing at all. On any given day, we're in a position where we have some players that are just situational. Like this is your situation, you just have to make sure that you're ready for when your number is called. And more times than not, when Destiny Littleton's numbers has been called, she's answered the bell.

Q. What's it like when she gets into the game, Destiny gets into the game and she starts scoring right away? What about her attitude and how she keeps everyone up during the game?

ZIA COOKE: I think it's super good for her, especially reflecting from last year to this year. I think she's in a way better positive state of mind. I love when she gets out there because I know, of course, if I drive, I've got a kick for her. Sometimes late shot clock, if I don't have a shot, I know Destiny is there to knock it down. And I'm just happy that every time she gets in, like Coach said, she does execute what is needed to be done from her.

Q. Dawn, I wondered if you could talk about Destanni Henderson a little bit. When you go out and recruit point guards are you looking for someone who is like you as a player, feisty, defensive minded? How is she like you? How is she different? And do you guys ever play one-on-one, and do you lock her down? I would love if it Z could comment, too, because you know both of them and could give us an honest perspective.

DAWN STALEY: We started recruiting Destanni Henderson not as a toddler, but she was that small. Her mom, we built a relationship with. She came on campus with her AAU program, and we offered her -- I think she was probably eighth, ninth grade, and then we just followed her and forged a relationship with both of them.

She told us very early on in the process that she was coming, stayed committed to us throughout, throughout just a freshman year that you want to forget. I know it's a part of her journey but you want to forget because she didn't have a really strong experience for one reason or another.

But you see her, she's calm, she's cool, I like her demeanor, I like her speed, I like her ability to score the basketball. I like the fact that she's the ultimate teammate. She's not stats driven. She's one that gives us what we need at any given time.

So yes, we look for those qualities, and we certainly look for the qualities of having great parenting.

Q. Can you lock her down one-on-one?

DAWN STALEY: So I could say yes, but we'll never know, right? No, I'm not locking anybody down. The only thing I can do is live through her, her ability to play fast, to shoot the ball, to single-handedly apply pressure to our opposing point guards. She's a lot quicker than I could ever be, and she probably shoots a lot more than I've ever shot.

But our demeanors are probably very similar in that we're poised. We're poised during times in which you can get your nerves out of whack.

ZIA COOKE: I would just say that Henny is definitely a true example of just trusting the process. I wasn't here her freshman year, but I've seen how she's overcome everything she's been through and is coming out on top with it. She's just a great teammate. She's definitely always pushing me to be better. Even in the weight room, she always wants me to stay after with her. So definitely she's a great teammate, and I'm super comfortable when I'm on the floor with her.

Q. Coach, you guys have probably one of the toughest schedules in the entire country. You've withstood handling the pressure of being the No. 1 team in the country all season. What goes into that mindset of knowing, okay, you're going to get the opponent's best every single night? And then, two, how much did that schedule prepare the team for the moment they're in now?

DAWN STALEY: I mean, we've played with this pressure for the past -- actually for all of their -- the juniors, for all of their career here at South Carolina. You know, you know that you're going to get everybody's best effort at different times, at different times in the game.

We just settle in, knowing that it's going to happen. Especially at the beginning of basketball games where you're super hyped to play us and to beat us, but we've got a poised group. We've got a really focused core group of players who they just want to win. They're smart. They know what's coming. So they brace for it.

Then, you know, did our schedule prepare us? It absolutely did. I thought our schedule did a great job at giving us a variety of styles of play, some we saw in the NCAA Tournament, so we were very much prepared to play it. I've got to credit to our conference, as well. The SEC from top to bottom challenged us every time that we stepped on the floor, so if you play in the SEC, it prepares you to compete for National Championships. We're sitting here because of that.

Q. For the players, I wanted to get you guys' thoughts on Coach Staley and Aliyah winning Naismith awards yesterday.

ZIA COOKE: Hey, I'm definitely excited for both of them. It was like a moment for me that I looked at and I was super excited for both of them just seeing them be able to do that. Aliyah, I definitely thought she deserved it 100 percent. Even if she didn't get the award, to us she would have been our Player of the Year.

And Coach, I mean, she's the GOAT, so I kind of figured she was going to get it. But definitely, definitely super excited for both of them.

VICTARIA SAXTON: I was really excited to see both of them win those awards and just to be a part of the team to help Aliyah and prepare her for everything she's been through. It's been exciting getting to see her grow from her freshman year to this year, and I'm excited for her to see what she has to come later on.

BREA BEAL: I would say the same. It's exciting to see it but it's more exciting to be coached by it and to play next to her. I think you get to learn so much just watching and listening. I think that's really like the best part for me.

Q. Coach Staley kind of alluded to the pressure that y'all have felt when you stepped on campus as freshmen. With the expectations that have been set around your class specifically, do you feel any extra pressure or does it sort of line up with the internal expectations you've had for yourselves to get to this point and ultimately to a National Championship?

ZIA COOKE: I don't really think it was any pressure. I think my freshman year wasn't so much pressure because Ty and Kiki did such a good job of putting us in our roles. We knew what our roles were, we didn't get outside of that and they taught us exactly what we needed to do.

Sophomore year, it could have been just a little pressure just knowing that we don't have them anymore so now we have to step up to the plate and know what to do out there with the team.

To this year, I don't feel any pressure at all. I think we're pretty comfortable with what we have to do, and we've been doing a pretty good job at it.

BREA BEAL: I think a lot of the time -- I know for me personally, I don't tend to try to feel pressure or put pressure on myself because that's when the boat gets a little rocky. I like to stay in the middle, not too high, not too low. So I think really in a good place.

Q. This morning there are about 850 women in the portal. I don't think you have any that I can notice, any transfers on your roster. How do you feel about the portal? You obviously don't need it, I guess. But how do you feel about the portal?

DAWN STALEY: Oh, we do.

Q. Who is that?

DAWN STALEY: Why would I tell you that?

So the portal, I think the portal is much like social media. It's the fad. It's a big ol' fad that just keeps continuing. There are more people in the portal than there are scholarships, and the effect on freshmen, sophomore, juniors, and seniors in high school, they're going to feel it, because most teams will look for just a little bit more experience of having played on this level. Some of them want to move up, some of them want to move down, the people that are in the portal.

Is it out of hand? It absolutely is. I don't know how you control it. But it's a student-athlete's -- it's their way. It's their way of controlling their own destinies, and it's their way of -- I don't know if it's an escape. I don't know what it is. But it's going to happen to all of us. I'm sure we'll probably have some after this season because if you're a competitor, you want to play. You want to play. I don't think they signed up for -- like a third of our team sits on the bench and doesn't really play a whole lot. Is that really fair to them to have to go through their entire careers or do they feel the pressure of wanting their goals and their dreams of playing in the WNBA?

You have to allow them that space, but surely it's way, way, way, way out of hand. But it's become a part of a recruiting tool for us, and everybody is going to utilize it. I'm not going to say we're not going to go in the portal. No, there's some really good players in the portal that if you feel that they can help your program, when you lose what you lose. Like we're going to lose several people just by graduation. We're going to lose two of these players up here, juniors, to graduation next year, and we've got two more of their classmates, a big part of what we do. How do you replace it?

So the portal is part of it.

Q. It's been a little bit since you guys have played Louisville. What's your relationship like with Jeff Walz and what do you think of that matchup?

DAWN STALEY: I mean, Jeff and I, we coached together for the UA team, '19 -- a few years ago. I like how he's wired. He's a super competitor, great basketball mind, great motivator. I'm looking forward to the challenge of playing Louisville because there are only four teams standing, and we're very, very lucky to be matched up with each other. So I'm looking forward to an exciting semifinals.

May the best team win that plays tomorrow night.

ZIA COOKE: I think Coach actually nailed that one right on the nose. I do.

Q. You guys have spoken throughout this whole tournament about experience and how much that plays a part in your camaraderie and big-game moments. What do you know going into this weekend about the Final Four that maybe a year ago you didn't know when you arrived for that Final Four?

ZIA COOKE: I just want to start with just being able to get the full experience this time. I think last year being in the bubble, we didn't actually get the experience, just to even have a press conference like this. When we first got here, we had a lot of love from everyone. So it's definitely been a Final Four experience, and I'm super excited about that part of it.

VICTARIA SAXTON: I would definitely have to say that this year has been a very different experience from last year considering we were in the bubble and not getting to experience the things that we're seeing this year. So I think that's a big difference, and I like it.

BREA BEAL: Yeah, I think they both got it. It's kind of -- you had basketball, but you've got to balance it with the experience, as well. You've got to be able to feel the love and feel what a true Final Four and what the true tournament feels like.

Q. You supply your team with such effort and energy and I was wondering if there's anything you do in your pregame routine to make sure that happens.

VICTARIA SAXTON: No, there's nothing that I do specific. I mean, I just be me and go out there and do what I do.

Q. Brea, you're considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. I wonder if when you came to South Carolina, was that something you wanted to do, you wanted to be known for that? And then is there a particular defensive player you like to model your game after?

BREA BEAL: When I first got here, I don't think anybody had any idea of what they're going to accomplish here. I think it's just something I fell into and it was just something I became great at and then it became natural. It's not anything -- like anyone I look up to or anything or I look after. It's just a skill that I didn't know I had in high school, and I just became great at it, I guess.

Q. Dawn, obviously you guys won the national title in 2017. You've been ranked No. 1 plenty in recent seasons. You got hampered by the COVID season two years ago, but to truly be one of the elite programs in college basketball, do you feel you guys need to win another national title, or do you feel you're already there?

DAWN STALEY: I mean, at the end of the day, we're going to be judged by championships. That's the thing that most people remember. Do we feel pressure to win? Yeah, because we're a pretty good basketball team. We're here. Will us not winning define who we are and what we're able to accomplish? No.

Whoever it is that's standing -- the last team that's standing on Sunday night, it's divine order. I truly believe that. So if it's not us, it's not us. We'll get another shot at it when it's our turn. That's what it's supposed to be.

Q. Coach, you mentioned yesterday upon accepting your Coach of the Year award that you asked for an exceptional buy-in and sacrifice from your team this year in particular. Do you think that emphasis on this year raises the stakes, or is it just fuel for you guys to get it done?

DAWN STALEY: I mean, I think we are a team that really has a good understanding of who we are. We do. And we have an understanding of how we need to do things, and they've done those things. Like the fact that we're here at the Final Four means that there was buy-in. There was total buy-in. It doesn't mean it was perfect, no, because you're in a position to deal with young people and young people's lives, their futures.

But we had to get that pretty clear, and it was clear from last spring. Because last spring we had individual meetings, and I just explained to them this is who we have. I explained to our No. 1 recruiting class, this is what you signed up for. I explained to the returners -- I usually give the worst-case scenario. Like you may not play. You may not even get reps in practice because we've got practice guys.

You've got to hit them over the head and then you have to explain to them, this is what you signed up for. So you can't be a distraction. If you don't like your role, you've got to fake it. Really you do because you can't be a distraction for the people that are totally bought into it because you're going to look a lot different than everybody else. You're going to stick out like a sore thumb.

It doesn't mean you have to like your role, because I've played on teams where I didn't like my role, but for the greater good of it, I wasn't going to be the one that derailed us from the ultimate goal. Like I sit here today as a three-time Olympian, gold medalist. I only started in one, but you would never know. You would never know.

So when I got my opportunity to play, you knew I played. You remembered me and that is what being a part of a team that has one goal in mind; you find your role and you play it to the best of your ability. If you do, you will star in it.

Q. Same question to Zia, please.

ZIA COOKE: I definitely agree with Coach. I think the best part about what she does with us is letting us know early, super, super early, and if you have any confusion, she's open for conversation. But I think the best thing about it is she lets us know early what our roles are, and she's just open to talk. If you have a problem with something and you feel like your role should be different, she's open to talk about it. Not saying that that might change it, but she's definitely open to having conversations about what we all want for ourselves, and I think that's what helped us get this far.

DAWN STALEY: We fielded a lot of questions about being the No. 1 in attendance in little ol' Columbia, South Carolina. We talk a lot about that, but I actually would like -- and I said this in Greensboro -- I would like for our local media, just kind of raise your hand.

Right? So this is why we're able -- we create it because we have people who are in our hometown that's pushing narratives to raise up women's basketball in a place where it's known as the football school. So when you back a team -- and I'm talking to people who are here representing the other teams that are here. When you back a school, not when we come to Final Fours -- this happened well before we went to the Final Fours -- it's not just the sports section. It's news in Columbia, South Carolina.

I'm proud that we represent a place that elevates our program to the highest level and they treat us like a sport, and that's not everywhere. To our local media, thank you so much for giving us a platform and keeping us in the news.

Thank you.

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