COLUMBIA, S.C. - Dawn Staley doesn't wear her team's ranking on her face. Even as her South Carolina Gamecocks built a sustainable lead Thursday against Charlotte, the coach looked annoyed. Holding a stat sheet given to her at the previous timeout, Staley glanced at it, rolled it up, opened it for another glance, and rolled it up again.

So what if she's coaching the top-ranked women's college basketball team in the country? Too many turnovers were staring her in the face.

The most accomplished female athlete in Philadelphia history, the great point guard of her era, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, now 44, remains on the search for higher ground. The North Philadelphia native long ago made the transition from player to coach, one she always laughed off as a player ("I never want to be one of you all") until offered the Owls job by a former Temple athletic director, Dave O'Brien. "He was almost challenging whether I could or not."

After eight seasons on North Broad, going south to her own mother's native state, "it was only because of the pull on my competitiveness," Staley said of the 2008 move. Now, she has her most talented team, 7-0 going into Sunday's game at Duke. After going 29-5 last season and winning the Southeastern Conference regular-season title, Staley's team is drawing as well as South Carolina's men, averaging 9,964 fans. She's earning $850,000 a year on a contract that has been extended through 2019.

Locals say Gamecocks football coach Steve Spurrier has a run for his money for most popular coach in town.

Knowing the game

The trajectory points up. Staley has last season's national high school player of the year, A'ja Wilson, even though Geno Auriemma at Connecticut and all the other top programs wanted her.

"Feels hella good!" Staley said when asked about winning that recruiting battle. "Because it doesn't happen very often. Geno can say, 'You're going to go to the Final Four, probably every year.' He can say that. What kid wants to turn that down? But then you get some who want to do something different, who really believe in it."

Wilson is 6-foot-5 and has the skills to play all over the court. She comes off Staley's bench to the loudest applause at Colonial Life Arena but logs starter's minutes, averaging 13.7 points after scoring 17 in 25 minutes in Thursday's 82-61 win over Charlotte.

"She kind of accomplished everything that I would like to do in my life," Wilson said of Staley and how that was the deciding factor, although it obviously didn't hurt the Gamecocks that Wilson was a home-state girl, from Hopkins, S.C. "I thought to myself, what better person who could teach me?"

"I know the game," Staley said, sitting in her office, her three Olympic jerseys framed behind her desk. "Or I see the game through different eyes than Pat Summitt and Geno and all those other coaches. I've played it at the highest level. What I see is not what the normal person sees. Probably the most difficult part is being able to speak their vernacular so they can really understand what we see."

She knows what vehicles to use. She's a regular on Twitter, for instance. What do her players hear in person from Staley? Some of it is philosophy: "A disciplined person can do anything. . . . Trust the process. . . ." But she doesn't try to be John Chaney, who would stop his practices for long lectures. Chaney also used to wander by Staley's practices, and all of a sudden her men's counterpart was putting in a press break, taking half an hour. But Staley treasured the memory and used the press break. Staley tweeted later Friday, "btw we still use the press breaker! He wanted the [point guard] in the worst spot on floor to bait the defenders. Works every time!"

Toward the end of her own practice Friday, it was quick-paced basketball talk: "If you get pushed out here, you're going to be trailing in transition. . . . When in doubt, go back. . . . Yeah, you go, too. Get a rebound."

Does she offer any Philly tales to her players?

"It's probably come up a little bit more because we have someone like A'ja Wilson," Staley said. "A'ja's been in private school pretty much all her life. So she's into the no-touch, be really nice, happy-go-lucky - I told her I was going to drop her off at one of the public schools in Philly so she can learn some of the things she'll need once opponents start taking certain things away from her. A toughness, a different mind-set. And slowly but surely, she's getting it, which is a good thing."

A graduate of Dobbins Tech and the University of Virginia, Staley added: "They know where I'm from. I always tell them, 'I just work here, I'm not from here.' Some of them like that. Some of them don't."

Staley's mother moved to Philadelphia from rural South Carolina when she was 13. She has gone back with her daughter.

"All her siblings are here," Staley said. "But she misses Philly. She misses Philly a lot."

No regrets for Staley, though.

"I thought by coming to a power conference, you'll be able to recruit a little bit different," she said. "You give yourself a chance to be successful at the highest level. It's no mark on Temple. You can't really get those players. A'ja Wilson's not coming to Temple University."

Calming down

For the first couple of seasons here, Staley did sometimes question whether she had made the right decision, finding it hard to get through to players she hadn't recruited. Never mind improving on her Temple track record, she couldn't equal it. She moved after never getting Temple past the second round of the NCAA tournament, but she did make it six out of eight times. Her first three South Carolina seasons, the Gamecocks went 10-18, 14-15, and 18-12 before getting to the tournament. But, she said, "I had to go through those things as a coach so you can really understand the journey." To date, the high-water mark has been reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012 and again last season.

Senior Aleighsa Welch, another key to this rise, a former South Carolina player of the year who leads the team in rebounding, was asked how Staley is different from when Welch was a freshman.

"I think she's more calm, she's more patient," Welch said. "She still brings that same intensity. She'll admit it, she's kind of changed up her coaching style, how intense she's been."

What was Year 1 like?

"I missed the wrath of it," Welch said, laughing, referring to how she showed up in Staley's fourth year at South Carolina. "She was hard on them. Each year, they like to say she's softened up. I think she's become more understanding of the type of players she's had. It's helped. Every year we've gotten better since I've been here."

"She knows what it's supposed to look like," said South Carolina assistant Lisa Boyer, who coached Staley with the Philadelphia Rage, then joined her Temple staff in 2002. "They're playing for one of the best players who ever played the game. I think Dawn has a really good feel for kids, for people in general. I think she has that gift. Is every day rosy? No. But they know she's going to love them as hard as she's angry at them. I don't know if every coach has that. Dawn doesn't play head games with them."

Staley possesses a historical view. She realizes that only one African American women's coach (Carolyn Peck, Purdue, 1999) has won a Division I title. "Yeah, I asked the question, 'Who are they?' Carolyn Peck, Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, Kevin Ollie," Staley said, also referring to African American men who have won NCAA titles. "I think there's one more."

She was right - John Thompson.

"It's not only a black thing," Staley said. "It's more about those programs that aren't UConn, aren't Notre Dame, aren't Stanford, aren't Baylor. It's more about giving them hope that if you're patient enough, if you're lucky enough to get the players, and get the players who believe in your vision, you can put yourself in position to compete against the traditions."

Being on top of the Associated Press ranking right now is great for her program, but that will be gone after two weeks if the Gamecocks lose Sunday at ninth-ranked Duke. Relying on their talent as they've sometimes done, South Carolina's coach said, won't be enough inside Cameron Indoor.

"They've got just as much talent as we do," Staley said, then she asked a question straight out of North Philly. "How do we create our edge?"

mjensen@phillynews.com@jensenoffcampus