In a women’s NCAA season marked by uncertainty, there is at least one guarantee: Top-ranked South Carolina will be tested immediately.
Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks return three starters off a team that went 32-1 last season and was favored to win the national title before the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three days after their season opener, South Carolina will take part in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic, a round-robin tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that features #21 Gonzaga, South Dakota and Oklahoma.
For all their success, South Carolina has never been preseason AP No.1 until this year. The ranking comes courtesy of their success last year where they trampled through their SEC schedule and a trio of sensational sophomores who started all 33 games as freshmen.
Leading the way is 6’5 center, Aliyah Boston. Boston won National Freshman of the Year in 2020 and was named second-team All-America. As a freshman, Boston was a force in the paint on both ends of the floor. She averaged 12.5 points per game on nearly 61% shooting, 9.5 rebounds per game and was 11th in the nation in blocks.
”I don’t know there’s another player in college women’s basketball that can do the things that Aliyah does at her size,” Staley said.
Also back from last year’s starting five are sophomore guards Brea Beal and Zia Cooke. Cooke averaged 12 points per game last season, while Beal was a dependable defensive perimeter.
The test for the Gamecocks will be replacing two huge pieces, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris. Those two went sixth and seventh in the WNBA Draft. Harrigan led the team in scoring, while Harris was one of the nation’s best distributors with 5.7 assists per game.
Staley says that without Harris, the team’s offensive sets will be scaled back. But despite only having one senior on the roster, the team is deep in big-game experience. Juniors Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton and senior LeLe Grissett appeared in every game last year and are capable of helping fill in the holes left by Harris and Harrigan.
Last year was Gonzaga’s fourth consecutive season with 26 or more wins. And, before the tournament was called off, it looked like they had a chance to have their best season in school history. The Bulldogs won the West Coast Conference title (their fourth in-a-row and 15th in the past 16 years) and piled up a 28-3 record. Defensively, they were superb. They held teams to just under 52 points per game, third-best in the NCAA.
On the other end of the floor, Jill Townsend is expected to lead the way this season. As a junior, she averaged 12.3 points per game. Twins Jenn and Leeanne Wirth return in the frontcourt. Jenn led the team in rebounding in 2020, grabbing 6.9 boards per game along with 10.8 points. Another set of twins will be critical for the Bulldogs. Guards Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong should play a big role in the backcourt. Kayleigh started eight games last year and will handle the ball more after the graduation of Jessie Loera.
South Dakota didn’t crack the top 25 in the preseason poll, but they ended last year 17th in the nation. The Coyotes went 30-2, their best season in program history. One of their two losses was to South Carolina. The two teams will open the tournament against each other on November 28th, just 60 miles from South Dakota’s campus.
Hannah Sjerven anchors the Coyotes. The 6’3 center is the Summit League Preseason Player of the Year. Last year, Sjerven averaged 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds. Chloe Lamb, a 5’10 guard, also averaged double figures last year in an offense that averaged the eighth-most points per game in the NCAA last year.
After consecutive losing seasons, Oklahoma will be looking for a key non-conference win in Sioux Falls. The Sooners were just 12-18 last year, but they return their top four scorers in hopes of making it back to the NCAA tournament.
Junior guard Taylor Robertson is one of the country’s most dangerous three-point threats. Robertson led the nation in both attempts (308) and makes (131) from three, shooting 42.5% from distance. Her 19.1 points per game was second-best in the Big 12.
Madi Williams (16.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and Gabby Gregory (11.3 PPG) can shoulder some of the scoring load and help make up for the fact the squad will be without preseason All-Big 12 guard, Ana Llanusa.