COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Dawn Staley stood in the middle of South Carolina's women's basketball practice facility, whistle around her neck and big smile on her face.
Staley's exactly where she wants to be this summer, free to make the improved Gamecocks even better.
"Everybody's been great, telling us how successful we've been," Staley said. "Hopefully, we can follow up and have more summers like this one."
Staley's previous offseasons at South Carolina were spent fixing team problems and plotting how to get a sluggish program moving forward. The work paid off last winter as the Gamecocks returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years and reached the round of 16 before falling to Stanford.
South Carolina finished 25-10 last season, its most victories since 2002. That included a 64-60 victory at Tennessee, the Gamecocks first-ever win at Knoxville that broke a 40-game losing streak to the Lady Vols.
Next Staley wants to lead the Gamecocks where she went three times as a star at Virginia — the Final Four. To accomplish that, Staley knows she must recruit and retain difference makers.
"You have to do it with talent," she said. "You look at our game against Stanford, I think we got out-talented. We didn't get outworked. I didn't think they did anything different than what we've seen except have the will to win."
Staley's had recruiting splashes before at South Carolina, but just couldn't make the lineups stick. She brought in one of the country's top players in 6-foot-5 Kelsey Bone in 2010, who was named the Southeastern Conference's newcomer of the year.
Bone, though, decided one year was enough with the Gamecocks and transferred to Texas A&M.
Staley lured another highly sought-after player a season later in Kayla Brewer and again it didn't last, Brewer leaving the team less than a season into her stay. Brewer eventually enrolled at Texas.
This time, Staley thinks her class of newcomers has a solid foundation to stand upon. The team loses four seniors, including top scorers Markeshia Grant and La'Keisha Sutton, who made it through the transition to Staley's style.
The coach, who'll start her fifth year at South Carolina this fall, doesn't think it will be as difficult to keep things at their improved level.
"We've added some talent. We've added some height for us," she said. "We're losing some leadership. We're losing some experience. But at the same time, we lost that a year before and some people stepped up."
That's likely to include the last of Staley's signees in 6-5 center Wilka Montout, a junior college transfer who was 13th in the country in scoring at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M last season.
Along with Montout's scoring (she averaged better than 18 points a game last year), she will give the Gamecocks the size they haven't had since Bone's one season.
Staley said the veterans coming back have to spend the summer time not only preparing their bodies but their minds to take over as leaders and make their own mark on the program.
Sutton, one of the departing seniors, believes it can happen.
"I think we were a resilient group," she said. "I really think this is the beginning of something very special at the University of South Carolina."
Staley's already had a special offseason, being enshrined into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month. Staley was honored by her selection but never likes talking about herself.
"The speech is over, the dress is off, I'm in my comfort right now," she said.
Staley is eager for the July recruiting period to start so she can continue the team's improvement. One of the country's most decorated Olympic stars also won't have the London Games splitting her focus. Staley won three gold medals as part of the U.S. team in 1996, 2000 and 2004, a year she was selected to carry the American flag at the opening ceremonies in Athens.
She was also a U.S. assistant coach when that team won the gold medal in China four years ago. Staley says it won missing her first summer games in 16 years. "I'm a fan," she said. "I'll watch our teams try and capture the gold, although I think it will be a little bit difficult."
Staley says she's ready to take the program further than ever. "We've dangled the carrot of success in front of their faces," she said. "Hopefully, they'll want to come in, work hard and repeat what we've done."