The white strip of paint separating the sideline from the court was infuriating for Dawn Staley on Sunday. The South Carolina coach could only puff her cheeks and clinch her fists as she desperately hoped to make eye contact with her point guard, Khadijah Sessions.
A foul was called, sending Sessions to the line with 1:34 left in the Gamecocks’ NCAA tournament first-round victory. That gave Staley her chance to summon the sophomore guard to the sideline.
A rolled-up white piece of paper in Staley’s hand cut through the air like a knife. Anyone in Alaska Airlines Arena could tell Sessions botched something, but midway through the discussion Sessions walked off. She had to shoot those free throws.
Unfazed, Sessions made four consecutive free throws to push South Carolina’s lead back to double digits en route to a 73-58 victory over Cal State Northridge. That enabled South Carolina, the top seed in the region, to advance to a second-round game against ninth-seeded Oregon State on Tuesday at 6:40 p.m.
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“It doesn’t feel good to her,” Staley admitted after the victory. “But I’m going to use opportunities to teach her some lessons, especially because we anticipate being in the NCAA tournament for the rest of her career.”
It’s the bigger picture that created this small moment. Staley, a 5-foot-6 Hall of Fame point guard, led Virginia to three Final Four appearances, including the championship game in 1991.
The Cavaliers didn’t win that title game, but Staley was voted the most outstanding player.
Good luck finding that trophy in her office. It’s the NCAA championship — the only desired trophy she hasn’t won — that eluded Staley.
Through experience, Staley knows in women’s basketball that winning starts with the point guard.
Proof comes through a simple stroll through history from Staley and Teresa Edwards in the Olympics to Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen on the WNBA level and then the modern-day Odyssey Sims and hopefully Sessions in college.
At least that’s the plan.
“She’s pushing me to be the same person as she was,” Sessions said before practice Monday. “Being under her leadership and her direction was one of the best things I’ve ever decided to do in my life.”
Staley and her staff, which includes Olympian Nikki McCray, had their eye on Sessions before she even entered Myrtle Beach High in her native South Carolina. It was the competitive fire, raw athleticism and silky shot that Sessions displayed.
Sessions also had the showmanship and talent of a Cynthia Cooper.
“I’ve actually had to tone her antics down,” Staley said. “Khadijah really enjoys the spotlight and the moment. Sometimes it works against her. When you give so much attention to antics, you lose sight of the focus of getting your team organized.”
Teammates call Sessions the “Hype Man.” They give her a dance move to perform and she does it to the fullest. They encircle her 5-foot-8 frame on the court before player introductions and Sessions’ head peeps over the top, shouting callbacks to the rafters.
But a lesson on how far to take the show was learned the hard way. Sessions celebrated too soon in a defeat against No. 12 North Carolina in December. A highflying chest bump with junior Aleighsa Welch ended in a high ankle sprain for Sessions. She missed the ensuing five games due to the injury.
As the team spun out of that defeat into a seven-game winning streak, eventually claiming the program’s first Southeastern Conference regular-season title, Sessions spent the rehab time honing another instruction from Staley — learning to love breaking down game film. If Sessions isn’t trying to make the room smile, she’s studying opponents’ moves on an iPad.
Staley estimated Sessions studied more film than the coaching staff on Oregon State.
The Beavers (24-10) are making their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1996 and Sunday won their first game since 1995, defeating Middle Tennessee State.
Oregon State features its own young point guard in Sydney Wiese, a 6-foot left-handed freshman who sports the same old-school headband positioning as Sessions. Wiese averages team-highs in scoring (14.5 points) and assists (4.0), and shoots 43.7 percent from three-point range.
“It’s a beautiful thing when you’ve got a great point guard,’” Staley said she told OSU coach Scott Rueck. “I don’t know if he thought I was talking about our point guard. I was talking about Sydney Wiese.”
Sessions already knows Wiese likes to handle the ball 90 percent of the time, picking apart defenses until she gets the ball in the hole.
It’s the type of defensive assignment Sessions just loves.
Just as Staley would’ve as a player.
And if Sessions is successful, South Carolina (28-4) will continue dancing into the future.
“We’re working on it,” Sessions joked of Staley’s rhythm. “She’s teaching me how to play the game and I’m teaching her how to dance.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JaydaEvans.