CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson women’s basketball coach Audra Smith knows firsthand how hard it is to chase down Dawn Staley on the basketball court.
It may be even harder for Smith to catch her former Virginia teammate in the coaching ranks. After all, Staley has the jump on her as the reigning national champions at South Carolina.
“She has raised the bar tremendously,” said Smith, starting her fifth season coaching the Tigers.
Through every step, Smith has talked, joked and consulted with Staley, her good friend and onetime college roommate — though that only lasted a short time when early-to-bed Smith could not sync with Staley’s night-owl ways.
It was Staley who called Smith last April asking her to sit in Staley’s section at the Final Four.
With confetti falling after South Carolina’s national title win over Mississippi State, Smith got a call from a Gamecocks assistant as she was heading out, imploring the Clemson coach to get back to the court and join the celebration.
“Are you guys crazy?” Smith answered. “With all the press on the floor do you think I’m going to celebrate?”
Smith and Staley played on three Final Four teams at Virginia. Staley was the national player of the year and is one of the greatest point guards to ever play women’s basketball. Smith was a 6-2 forward who Staley looked for down low.
Staley is still looking to assist her former roommate.
Smith called to discuss building a program and Staley explained how difficult the climb will be. That wasn’t a revelation to Smith, but her friend upped the ante when she brought home the national crown a few miles down the road from Clemson’s campus.
Clemson is 41-80 in Smith’s tenure, its best showing coming last year at 15-16 that included its first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament victory in three years. Smith received a contract extension in the offseason, athletic director Dan Radakovich saying the team had improved on and off the court.
“Last year was an indicator of where she’s headed,” Staley said. “She’s at a place where it takes a long time to get it off the ground. It’s off the ground.”
Now, Smith has to take the next step. The first one is winning some recruiting battles against her buddy.
“We have a lot of talent in South Carolina coming down the pipeline the next couple of years,” Smith said. “I’ve got to beat her to the punch.”
Clemson women’s basketball had its heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s, winning two ACC Tournament titles and making 14 trips to the NCAA between 1988 and 2002. The Tigers have not been back to the NCAA Tournament in the 15 years since.
Staley understands the pain, her teams finished under .500 in her first two years at South Carolina.
“She’s been really honest with me,” Smith said of Staley. “She said this didn’t happen overnight. This took some time. You have to be patient. You have to coach. You have to get the kids in your program that believe in your philosophy and are going to work hard for you. You have to keep moving forward and stay positive.”
Smith gets it, but she can’t always conceal her fiercely competitive spirit.
Sure, she’s happy about her friend’s success, but Smith couldn’t escape thinking how it would feel to cut down the nets at Clemson. To do that, she might have to go through Staley.
“Everybody wants to get to the top and that’s a national title,” she said. “When that will happen, I don’t know.”
Smith has already received some bad news and the season hasn’t even started. Clemson’s leading scorer Nelly Perry has had shoulder surgery and the senior will miss the entire season. But the coach is excited about her returning players, particularly sophomore Kobi Thornton who was Clemson’s first rookie named to the ACC all-freshman team in five years.
While she continues to put in the work to get Clemson back to the NCAA Tournament, Smith knows there will be more heart-to-hearts with Staley.
“There’s just admiration. I knew where she started and how hard she worked,” Smith said. “Looking at them, you think, ‘It’s possible. This is so possible.'”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this article from Nashville, Tennessee.
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