Dawn Staley, South Carolina WBB covered $5,000 dinner bill for HBCU team, coach says

Norfolk State women’s basketball coach Larry Vickers wanted to make sure his players soaked in every part of their NCAA Tournament appearance last March.

Dawn Staley gave him an assist.

Speaking last week at MEAC basketball media days, Vickers revealed that Staley, the legendary South Carolina women’s basketball coach, and her program picked up the tab for a full Norfolk State team dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House the night before the teams played each other in the NCAA first round.

The final bill?

“My team ran it up,” Vickers said, laughing, during an Oct. 26 appearance on the MEAC Preseason Women’s Basketball Show. “We might’ve spent about five grand.”

The No. 1 overall seed and reigning national champion Gamecocks, who ended up reaching the Final Four, beat No. 16 seed Norfolk State in a round of 64 game at USC’s Colonial Life Arena on March 17.

But South Carolina’s 72-40 win was far from a pushover.

Staley said postgame that the Norfolk, Va.-based Spartans, who’d won 26 games and qualified as the MEAC conference tournament champion, were “not a 16 seed” and complimented the team’s effort and intensity. She also visited Norfolk State’s locker room after the win to shout out one of its players, forward Kierra Wheeler, for her performance.

According to Vickers, that Columbia hospitality from Staley, who’s long been an outspoken advocate for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Norfolk State, extended to the night before the game.

“I didn’t understand the magnitude and the energy around her before I really personally met her,” Vickers said. “Then you’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I see why you’re the figurehead for women’s basketball.’ She does an excellent job, makes everybody feel loved and comfortable. They took us to Ruth’s Chris. South Carolina paid for our meal the night before.”

Mar 17, 2023; Columbia, SC, USA; Norfolk State Spartans head coach Larry Vickers disputes a call against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the first half in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball tournament at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports Jeff Blake/Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 17, 2023; Columbia, SC, USA; Norfolk State Spartans head coach Larry Vickers disputes a call against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the first half in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball tournament at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports Jeff Blake/Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Vickers said a lot of the players on his roster hadn’t eaten at Ruth’s Chris, a luxury steakhouse chain that has a Columbia location just a few blocks away from USC’s campus and Colonial Life Arena, home of the two-time national champion Gamecocks.

“A lot of them had never been, and I didn’t look at their pre-orders,” Vickers said. “So, you know, they were ordering entrees and two sides not realizing that the sides are shareables. So the table had no room. The table had no room at all. But we figured it out.”

That was the start of what Vickers described as an overwhelmingly positive NCAA Tournament and something the Spartans, who were making their first postseason appearance since 2002, can use as a launch point for another successful season in 2023-24.

The Spartans were 49-point betting underdogs in the game, according to ESPN, but they covered that spread (losing by 32 points) and played South Carolina tough in the first half, to the point where Staley had to call a first-half timeout.

“You can’t prepare your team for those kinds of moments on ESPN in the middle of the day,” Vickers said. “So we missed some stuff that we generally made. But overall, we were happy. And there were no tears in the locker room. Coach Staley came in our locker room and talked to our players. So that was exciting as well.”

South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) runs into Norfolk State Spartans forward Kierra Wheeler (50) while Norfolk State Spartans guard Niya Fields (2) during the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia on Friday, March 17, 2023. Sam Wolfe/Special To The State
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson (25) runs into Norfolk State Spartans forward Kierra Wheeler (50) while Norfolk State Spartans guard Niya Fields (2) during the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia on Friday, March 17, 2023. Sam Wolfe/Special To The State

There was only one negative surrounding Norfolk State’s interactions with South Carolina, which ranks as the No. 6 team in the preseason AP Top 25 and opens the season Monday in a historic game against No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris.

Staley’s act of generosity in covering the Spartans’ team dinner at Ruth’s Chris meant eating. Lots of eating. Before their biggest game of the season.

“Somehow, we played the next day five pounds heavier,” Vickers said on the MEAC preseason basketball show.

“I think that was the goal,” the host said.

“Her plan worked,” Vickers said, laughing. “Her plan worked. But, I mean, we just enjoyed the experience.”