All South Carolina coach Dawn Staley could do was shake her head.
As the buzzer sounded in 2018 inside Colonial Life Arena to signify a 100-62 victory over Lander, Staley walked over to the scorer’s table to shake Lander coach Kevin Pederson’s hand. Perplexed by why she would be disappointed in a win, Pederson joked with the Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and asked, “What are you upset about?”
Her response is something Pederson will never forget.
“You don’t get it,” Staley said to Pederson. “You put up 40-plus points on us in a half. We don’t give up that many points to anybody. Go look it up.”
At the time, only four teams had accomplished that feat during Staley’s tenure: UConn, Tennessee, Notre Dame — and Lander. Since then, a mere nine teams − Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Baylor, Drake, Kentucky, Oregon, Mississippi State, and Stanford − have scored more than 40 points in a half against the Gamecocks.
“We like to face Lander because we know we’re going to be challenged because (Pederson) does a great job with them,” Staley said in an email. “Some teams schedule exhibition opponents to get experience. We schedule Lander because we know we’re going to face a good, disciplined team.”
It’s been a long road for Pederson. In his 17 years at the helm, he became the winningest coach in Lander history, leading the Bearcats to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances and 13 Peach Belt Conference tournaments appearances.
It’s a journey he reflects on through books; his books, which detail practice plans and contain box scores for each game that season along with advanced statistics for his team and every team he faces. Pederson has a book made for every season he has coached, and each 300-page manuscript helps perfect the Lander up-tempo style of play that opponents and fans are accustomed to seeing.
“I’m a big math guy. I love numbers,” Pederson said. “I really believe that what coaching comes down to is the numbers. When you’re playing a zone, it’s not too complicated, in my opinion. Where they have two, you put three; where they have three, you put four. It’s the same thing with the press offense. If they go with an odd front, you put two; if they go two in the front, you put three. There’s so many mathematical things that keep it simple.”
Pederson said that after a disappointing 9-17 season in 2012, a year removed from Lander’s first Elite Eight appearance, he “locked himself” in his office and began studying statistical trends.
These numbers go further than scoring averages and rebound totals, although if you ask him, Pederson can provide a benchmark for what a player would need to average to win all-conference awards.
Over a five-year span, he found that a predictor of an all-conference player was free-throw attempts. Along with the individual accolades, Pederson found that teams that consistently went to the free-throw line were some of the best teams in the conference.
“It changed the way I recruit,” Pederson said. “I started pushing free-throw attempts, and in our practices (I tell players), ‘You better not go weak. You better not fake or duck and dodge,’ because that foul is just as important to me as those free-throw attempts.”
While pushing free-throw attempts, Pederson began honing in on conditioning, citing that one of the best predictors of an Elite Eight team is a consistent starting lineup that plays a majority of the game. That process begins at the start of every season. On the first day of every preseason camp, the players will partake in what Pederson calls, “The game of life.”
Rather than putting a basketball in their hands, players have to get on the treadmill and beat their mile time. It’s a strenuous day for every player. Just ask LaShonda Chiles, who played for Pederson at Anderson and Lander.
“I had to re-run my mile time my senior year,” Chiles said. “It was tough for me, because I was never one of those that was super athletic. I was never going to be the fastest, but I was never going to be the slowest.”
Chiles said she did make her mile time and cited Pederson’s ability to push her beyond what she felt she could do as the reason for her collegiate success. Chiles still holds school record for most points scored in a career at Anderson and is one of two 2,000-point scorers in its program history.
“He’s really able to get players to produce,” Chiles said. “There are only certain players with a certain mentality that have what it takes to be great in his program. He sets the tone that you have to bring it every day in practice, and that sets you up for success in the game. The practices were a lot harder than the games.”
It’s a sentiment that is still shared by the players of today. Makaila Cangé, the reigning Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year, set a Lander single-game record, scoring 43 points Wednesday against Augusta.
Cangé wasn’t sure if she would fit into Pederson’s system. She was recruited by other schools to be a small forward rather than a center, but Pederson saw something in Cangé, and it has paid off.
“In high school, I was never a runner like a coast to coast, and he completely switched the gears (in my game),” Cangé said. “He saw my potential, and he brought it out of me.”
What makes Pederson so successful is the way that he gets players to buy into their roles, Lander assistant coach DeCole Shoemate Robertson said.
“Kevin is unique in the sense that he’s a visionary,” Robertson said. “... He knows what he wants and he knows how to get there, but he’s very good at delegating and making sure everybody knows their role. What I love about Kevin and working with him is that every day I come in, I know what I’m responsible for.”
Robertson, who played under Pederson for two years at Anderson, said players and coaches can feel his passion for the game, and they buy into it. It’s a system that has led Lander to unprecedented heights for a Division II program, including a victory over Clemson in a 2019 exhibition game.
“I’ve been a coach for over 20 years, and I have not had one player who played four years with us not win a championship ring,” Pederson said. “It helps being able to tell kids, ‘Look, I know you may think I’m crazy, but look at the results.’”