NCAA women’s basketball tournament features 12 Black female coaches

South Carolina's Dawn Staley is one of 12 Black female coaches in this year's NCAA women's basketball tournament
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Dawn Staley has a sheepish grin, which turns into a smile after a quick glance at the Greensboro Region of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

There is sense of pride that exudes from the South Carolina basketball coach when she sees people who look like her, doing what she does and getting the chance to be successful at it.

Including Staley, five of the dozen Black female coaches in the women’s tourney are in the Greensboro part of the bracket. The 12 coaches doubles the number of Black women that led teams in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

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Though there is still much work to be done, Staley said it is a sign of success.

“When you give people opportunity that they don’t often get and they’re successful, this is kind of what happens. I think it’s popular now. Like it was popular probably … when Coach (Jolette) Law got the Illinois job,” in 2007, Staley said of her Gamecocks assistant.

“A lot of Black coaches got opportunities during that time,” Staley added. “And then probably three, four years later, 75% of them weren’t head coaches anymore, and they don’t get recycled like other coaches. So I think now Black coaches are more prepared because they have had to be prepared.”

Staley will face one those Black female coaches, Howard’s Ty Grace, when her top-seeded Gamecocks play the Bison on Friday. Grace led Howard to a win in the inaugural women’s First Four on Wednesday, beating Incarnate Word in Columbia, South Carolina.

After Howard’s win, Grace and Staley had a quick exchange in a hallway of the arena that represented more about what could be than what was said.

“We just said hi because the teams were passing by and we were looking up as they were walking by. You know, she just said she was glad to have us here and she was happy for me,” Grace said. “She wished me luck. She said, ‘I’ll see you on Friday.'”

Staley would like to be able to say that to a Black female coach more often.

Yet, that could take a while. There has been marginal progress when it comes to the hiring process.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Dawn Staley sends piece of net to every Black women’s basketball coach

Of the nine openings at Power Five schools this season, only two Black women filled those vacancies: Marisa Moseley at Wisconsin and Auburn’s Johnnie Harris. Counting the two hires, of the 65 Power Five schools, 12 had Black women leading their basketball programs this season. And though neither Wisconsin nor Auburn are in the tournament, they are trending in the right direction: both finished with more wins than they did last year.

There already are a handful of Power Five openings for the upcoming season, including Texas A&M, Virginia and Syracuse. And there would seem to be a potential pool of candidates in the NCAA Tournament with six Black women from non-Power Five schools.

One of them is Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack.

She played for the Orange and has her jersey retired at the school. She’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for her alma mater, and believes the success Black women are having is breaking down barriers.

“People are noticing they are Black and winning,” she said. “But also that their messages are so amazing. More doors are opening for at least getting interviews for Black coaches. Seeing so many be successful and reach the NCAAs can only help get more opportunities.”

Legette-Jack has Buffalo back in the NCAA Tournament again where the Bulls will face Tennessee. She led Buffalo to its first Sweet 16 in 2018 before losing to Staley’s Gamecocks.

She had been fired by Indiana when the Bulls gave her a second chance, a decision that has paid off for Buffalo.

“You used to see coaches that don’t look like us get a job, lose a job and get hired again,” Legette-Jack said. “It’s like their birthright. But now you get a sense that things are changing.”

Staley has been a leader for that change and though she deflects any credit, her credentials and success at South Carolina can’t be overlooked.

The Olympic gold medalist and national team coach has built the Gamecocks into one of the nation’s top programs, which annually has the highest fans attendance. Staley also signed a landmark contract for women, inking a $22.4 million, seven-year deal earlier this season.

“I’m in awe of her. I’m a groupie. She’s so great and gracious,” Legette-Jack said. “You call her, and you think you’re the most special person in the world. She does it with everybody.”

The other Black women coaching in the tournament include: Adia Barnes, Arizona; Niele Ivey, Notre Dame; Kyra Elzy, Kentucky; Shereka Wright, UT-Arlington; Joni Taylor, Georgia; Yolett McPhee-McCuin, Ole Miss, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, Missouri State; Natasha Adair, Delaware; and Tomekia Reed, Jackson State,

Staley is the longest tenured of the group; Ivey, Elzy and Wright have the shortest stints at their respective schools — all were hired in 2020.

Wright was a longtime assistant having worked at Texas Tech, Alabama and Vanderbilt before finally getting a chance with UT-Arlington.

“I waited my turn and I had to really learn how to be an assistant coach to get into this seat as a head coach,” said Wright, who led the Mavericks to their first NCAA appearance since 2007. “I interviewed for a couple of jobs, but this ended up being a great situation for me.”

Wright, along with the other Black women coaching in the tournament, was among the 70 who received a piece of the 2017 NCAA championship net from Staley. The often retold gesture was to help inspire them.

Barnes has hers taped to a computer screen so she sees it very day.

“Dawn first told me about the net when she was with me at USA Basketball. She was going to give me the piece of net. I thought that was amazing. I thought I was the only getting one. then it was amazing she gave it to everyone. It shows how selfless she is.”

Barnes shared the sports’ biggest stage with Staley last year when they became the first two Black women in a Final Four.

They hope it won’t be the last time as more doors slowly open at the highest levels of the women’s game.

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”