An introduction and a reunion in one night.
But it wont be hard to remember that theres a game to be played.
College teammates Dawn Staley and Audra Smith meet again Wednesday night when No. 19 South Carolina heads to Clemson for the annual rivalry match. Staley and Smith, who each played for Virginia from 1989-92, will be back on the same court, although on opposite sidelines and in opposite spectrums.
Staleys Gamecocks (4-0) are aiming for their third consecutive NCAA tournament berth and are cruising through the early season. Smiths Tigers are 1-2 and still dealing with a near-crippling blow from last year, when most of a highly regarded recruiting class left the team midseason and coach (and former Clemson standout) Itoro Coleman was fired.
Staley feels for her longtime pal, since she knows all about struggling. It wasnt that long ago that the Gamecocks were 10-18, lost their two best players to injury, and the future wasnt looking too bright.
I feel for her because I was in the same place as she was five years ago, just trying to get your team to play like you, Staley said on Tuesday. Theyll get there, and theyll probably get there a little bit quicker (tonight), because its a rivalry. Sometimes it takes a situation like this to kind of get your team going. Im just hoping they dont get going on us.
The two go back a long way, but Wednesday night will be about coaching their respective teams and trying to win. The friendly stuff is for before and after.
Its Dawn. Its what we do, Smith said. Therell be some bantering back and forth. Well have a good time.
The two met as freshmen at Virginia, assigned to room with each other. Smith was Miss Basketball in her native Georgia in 1988, Staley was the National High School Player of the Year by USA Today.
My high school coach showed me a copy of USA Today with her picture in it, and told me I was going to be playing with her, Smith remembered. I was like, Who in the heck is Dawn Staley?
It didnt take long for Staley to make an impression on Smith, and for Smith to make an impression on Staley. Each wanted to win and each was extremely competitive, although they had to clear one hurdle first.
She likes to get in bed early and get eight hours of sleep, and for me, I stay up, Staley said. Sleeps got to knock me out. We had to switch roommates.
Staley moved in with Tammi Reiss, who also liked to stay up late watching movies and hanging out, and Smith moved in with Allison Moore, who liked to retire early.
The two old ladies, Audra and Allison, they were tucked in by like, 9 oclock every night, Staley cracked.
The friendship flourished, though, as the Cavaliers won a lot of games. They went to three consecutive Final Fours from 1990-92 and Staley and Smith were big parts of the run.
If I got beat defensively, I knew Audra was either going to block a shot or make somebody pay, Staley said. Shes always the first person to pick you up off the floor. She was always somebody you wanted to play with instead of against.
The two went their separate ways, Staley playing professionally and with Team USA before getting into coaching while Smith went back to Georgia for a couple of years before returning to Virginia as an assistant coach. Staley coached at Temple and then came to USC; Smith went from Virginia to UAB to Clemson.
When Coleman was fired, Smith was gauged for interest. She kept it quiet until the first interview, and when she was hired, Staley called to congratulate her.
We talked a lot over the summer, Smith said. She gave me some really good advice.
Staley told her about recruiting in the state, how Clemson could be restored to its former power, and about the rivalry.
I did get a chance to talk to her about the rivalry, and, of course, you dont know until you get your first one under your belt, Staley said. Ive lived it for five years, so I can tell the tale to our freshmen and new players on our roster, how big it is.
Staley has won the past three rivalry matchups after dropping her first two. The Gamecocks are favored to win a fourth in a row with Clemson still trying to find its identity.
But Staley knows better than to think its an automatic win. Its a rivalry game, and Xs and Os are often thrown out the window in that setting. Plus, she knows how Smith can coach.
I dont know if she knows quite how big the rivalry is, but shell get a taste of it, probably, from her players who understand it, Staley said. Audras tough, funny, competitive, very, very aggressive. Shell have her team ready to rock n roll.
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