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South Carolina's Dawn Staley impressed by Buffalo's unselfish play

It was late Sunday night when South Carolina had won its second-round game, beating Virginia to advance to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 for the fifth straight season.

Reporters asked head coach Dawn Staley about facing Florida State in the next round.

But hold up. Staley reminded everyone that Florida State still had to get past Buffalo on Monday night. She had watched Buffalo a few times and is familiar with Bulls coach Felisha Legette-Jack. That second-round matchup wasn't going to be a given.

And she was right.

Buffalo, the 11th seed, upset No. 3 Florida State in Tallahassee Monday night, making the Bulls the Sweet 16 opponent for defending national champion Gamecocks on Saturday.

"At this stage of the game, you can't take anybody lightly and you've got to respect every opponent you could possibly play," Staley said Wednesday afternoon from South Carolina. The Gamecocks were scheduled to fly to Albany on Thursday.

"I know Felisha and I know how she coaches. I know her pedigree and I've seen them play. I knew it would be a pretty tough game for Florida State even having Florida State at home, because they do certain things all the time, over 40 minutes – they probe the defense, they've got a few shooters that can knock down shots. They've got a point guard in (Stephanie) Reid who is the engine that makes them go. She doesn't let up. When you have that kind of leadership, that kind of experience, you've got a fight on your hands.

"They're unselfish. They're a team that you can vividly see plays for each other and when a team plays for each other, it doesn't matter who scores; it doesn't matter who gets the stats. All that matters is the end result and you see that as they play the game."

Staley knows all about the fight of a mid-major program. She started her coaching career at Temple, then part of the Atlantic 10. In her eight seasons at Temple, she guided the Owls to six NCAA tournaments, but the program never could get past the second round. So it's natural for Staley to be excited for Buffalo and Central Michigan advancing to the Sweet 16 out of the Mid-American Conference, both as 11 seeds.

"I got my start at a mid-major and it was my dream to win a national championship," Staley said. "But we kept getting knocked out in the first and second round. We never made it past the first weekend.  Now that two (MAC) teams have made it past the first weekend, I think it's great for women's basketball and great for those coaches and those players who I'm sure went there thinking about winning a national championship."

For Buffalo, the road to vying for a national title goes through South Carolina, the defending national champs. And it hasn't always been an easy title for the Gamecocks to wear, especially after losing three players to the WNBA (including juniors Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis) who met the league's early-departure criteria. The Gamecocks had to retool in the summer and feel their way through their first season with the "defending national champion" tag.

Getting everyone's best game – everyone, after all, wants a shot at the defending national champ – made the Gamecocks become more resilient.

"You have no choice, you either swim or sink and our players chose to swim," Staley said. "They've done a great job with some of the injuries we've been through and dealing with adversity and losing our three top players in the WNBA draft. But from that very first game until now, the players have handled themselves extremely well. I'm proud of them for that. I truly am."

But part of the reason the Gamecocks have found success this season is because of the legacy of success Staley has built within the program. Immense talent populates the roster, including A'ja Wilson, who has already won two national player-of-the-year honors, but the talent thrives in what South Carolina women's basketball has become.

It's one thing to get to the Sweet 16. It's another to make it there five straight years with two Final Four appearances and a national championship for good measure. Sustaining success isn't just about one recruiting class to Staley. It's about creating an environment people want to be a part of.

"You've recruited great players and had talent that has transferred in that wants to be a part of our culture," Staley said. "I think it's all about culture. When you create a good culture, people want to be a part of it and want to stay. To have sustained success, culture is more important than anything you do."

Five things about South Carolina women's basketball

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