(Bri Lewerke/Just Women's Sports)

Dawn Staley knows the impact that South Carolina’s win in Sunday’s national championship game can have on the game of basketball.

When she won her first title in 2017, Staley sent pieces of the championship net to all of the Black women head coaches in the country.

It was a continuation of a tradition that Carolyn Peck had started when she gave Staley a piece of the net from Purdue’s 1999 championship season. When it came time for Staley to keep the tradition alive, she couldn’t decide on just one recipient. So instead she sent a piece to all the Black women coaches, calling them a “crucial piece of equipment” to the game.

Now, she has to decide what to do with another net.

“The net is going to represent something, something in our game, something that will advance our game,” Staley said Sunday.

The plan is to send pieces of the net to Black male coaches of women’s basketball teams and to Black college basketball journalists. In 2020-21, Black men held 4.65 percent of women’s basketball coaching roles.

Staley recognizes the work that still needs to be done and feels the pressure of winning national championships as a Black coach. She’s the first Black coach — male or female — to win more than one NCAA Division I basketball title.

“I felt a great deal of pressure to win because I’m a Black coach,” Staley said. “Because if we don’t win, then you bring in … just scrutiny. Like, ‘You can’t coach, you had enough to get it done but yet you failed.’ You feel all of that, and you feel it probably 10 times more than anyone else because we’re at this platform. It really makes me emotional. It does. Because I am their hope. I am the person that they strive (to be because of) where I sit winning national championships. That’s what they want to do.”

But as much as Staley feels the pressure, she also recognizes the importance of her position.

She’s had an incredible run at South Carolina since being hired on in 2008. She’s the first Black woman to lead a No. 1 team all season long and go on to win a title. She has led the Gamecocks to four Final Fours in the last seven NCAA tournaments – besting Vivian Stringer, who did it three times at three separate schools. She’s also one of just two Black female coaches alongside Peck to win a national title.

“If I can be that ray of hope, if I can be a vessel to them being successful, I am a willing giver of this game, because the game has given me so much,” she said. “I mean, so much. My cup runneth over when it comes to what the game has given to me, so I am forever in debt in trying to repay the game.”

As for the 2017 net, Staley held on to a piece of it for the entirety of the tournament. She brought it out prior to the championship game as a reminder.

“It’s a constant reminder of how hard it is,” she told Peck postgame. “We rode the wave when it was hot and we’re going to continue to do that. But in the meantime, people’s national championship may not be hoisting the national championship trophy.

“That’s what this signifies,” she continued, gesturing to the piece of net she carried. “We won before we won. We won because of who we have to care for every single day.”