Former Gamecock Olivia Gaines draws from Dawn Staley in new role as Allen head coach

Olivia Gaines never planned on becoming a basketball coach.

She played two years of junior college ball at Louisburg College, where she helped her team to the NJCAA Division II National Championship and was named National Junior College Player of the Year. She transferred to South Carolina and played two years for coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks, where she had a role in the program’s first NCAA Final Four appearance and SEC Tournament championship in 2014-15.

When her college career ended, Gaines thought about playing basketball overseas. Then her Louisburg College coach Brett Vana asked her to join his coaching staff at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I think I’m too young!’ ” Gaines remembered thinking. “But he believed in me. I’ve always been a leader on the court. I think that’s why he really wanted to hire me. He believed I could do it, even when I questioned myself. But I came in, hit the ground running and I’ve been successful ever since.”

Since then Gaines has coached on nearly every amateur level of basketball: high school (head coach at Andrew Jackson, Fort Dorchester and Cross high schools), Division III (assistant coach at Vassar College), Division II (head coach at Richard Bland College and USC Salkehatchie; assistant coach at Northwestern Oklahoma State) and Division I (assistant coach at Georgia Southern).

Now she’s returned to Columbia for her latest job: head women’s basketball coach at Allen University, where she’s eager to shake things up.

“It’s definitely gonna be a lot different than what the kids probably are accustomed to,” she said. “I’m so used to winning. I know what high-level basketball looks like. And I know the type of kids I want in the program.

“So I’ve already set goals for myself: 20-win season, trying to win the conference, and I also want to be awarded with Coach of the Year. So it’s a lot of work to be done. And I’m excited. Overwhelmed, but prepared.”

Sound familiar?

Gaines played two formative years under Staley, who verbalized lofty goals of national championships as early as her introductory press conference in 2008. Like Staley, Gaines is confident in her ability to deliver and revitalize Allen’s women’s basketball program, which finished 12-15 this season. Looking at her resume, it’s easy to understand why.

In her two previous head coaching roles, Gaines compiled a 49-5 record. Her Richard Bland College team finished its inaugural season as the NJCAA Division II national runner-up.

“Olivia Gaines has built a resume that would allow her to coach anywhere in the country,” Staley said in a quote released by Allen in a school statement. “Her choice to come back to South Carolina and Allen University makes this a special reunion. I’m excited to have her back in Columbia, and I can’t wait to see her program thrive.”

“I knew she was gonna be great at it,” former USC teammate and current assistant coach Khadijah Sessions said, “her defensive ability and how she was so focused in every time we had a game. She understood, she was always secure. So for her to be shining like this is awesome.”

Playing in Staley’s system, which emphasized speed, rebounding and defense, Gaines said she developed an admiration for two-way players. She also learned the importance of fostering strong bonds with her players.

“My players can always talk to me,” she said. “I have an open-door policy. And building those relationships, I’m big on if you build those relationships. You can get a kid to run through a brick wall for you just because they know that you care.

“… (Staley’s) a player’s coach, too. She listens to her players. She has an open-door policy. There’s nothing you can’t talk to her about.”

What attracted Gaines to Allen most was the opportunity to come back to South Carolina and coach at an HBCU. A few of her cousins played at Winston-Salem State University and Shaw University in North Carolina, and she loved the atmosphere. Gaines also attended some games at Allen and Benedict College while playing at South Carolina.

“I can’t wait to get started,” Gaines said. “I can’t wait to fill up the gym. I’m from South Carolina, all my people are from South Carolina and North Carolina. So it was definitely like a dream come true for me.”

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