South Carolina will begin the women’s NCAA basketball season just as they ended the last one, as favorites to win the NCAA title.
The cancelation of the 2020 NCAA tournament left a preponderance of “what-ifs,” throughout the sport, but even the most cautious estimates placed the Gamecocks, and their 32-1 record, as one of the favorites to win it all. A trio of stellar freshmen, along with seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan put the Gamecocks alongside Oregon and Baylor atop the NCAA in a season that had no proper ending or closure.
A year later, Herbert Harrigan and Harris are off to the WNBA, selected sixth and seventh overall. South Carolina, however, remains as strong as ever. This will be the first time in program history they enter the season ranked No.1 and a chance to win their first title since 2017.
The three freshmen starters from a year ago didn’t get the experience of playing for an NCAA title, but they did pile up valuable minutes in starting all 33 games. Aliyah Boston, last year’s National Freshman of the Year and second-team All-American, anchors the squad. In her freshman year, the 6’5 center averaged 12.5 points per game and 9.5 rebounds. Defensively, she controlled the paint, finishing 11th in the nation in blocks and compiling a highlight reel that will make opponents question whether or not they want to approach the rim.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley counts Boston as the most versatile player in the nation at her height.
“If she’s not in the conversation for being player of the year, you’re reading it wrong…..You’ve got blinders on,” Staley said.
In year two at South Carolina, Boston will look to add a three-point shot to her tool kit. Last year, she attempted just 12 shots from beyond the arc.
Joining Boston in the Gamecocks superb sophomore class are guards Brea Beal and Zia Cooke. Beal, 6’1, was a key piece of the South Carolina defense that kept opponents to 56 points a game on 33% shooting (in a January 30th game, the Gamecocks held Ole Miss to two points in the first half). Cooke averaged 12 points per game and got to the free-throw line more than anyone else on the team. Her 40 three-point makes also led the team.
The departure of Harris leaves a leadership and ball-handling hole. Staley says that the number of plays on offense will be drastically reduced to adjust for the lack of experience. The Gamecocks have only one senior on the roster, 6’2 guard Lele Grissett.
Harris’ absence means more minutes for Destanni Henderson. The junior guard came off the bench in every game last year and was second on the team in assists. Staley also sees a bigger role for Victaria Saxton, who like Laeticia Amihere, can add some size alongside Boston in the frontcourt.
The Gamecocks kick off the season against the College of Charleston on November 25th at home.
But the typically packed house at Colonial Life Arena will be drastically reduced because of COVID-19 regulations. From there, South Carolina will head to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for three games at the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic.
The Gamecocks are expected to sweep all three games but will be tested. Gonzaga is ranked 21st in the nation. South Dakota team went 30-2 last year and will be playing an hour drive from campus. Oklahoma features one of the most prolific shooters in the NCAA in Taylor Roberston.
Because of the uncertainty of the rest of the schedule, no game, particularly out-of-conference, can be taken for granted. It will be an early measurement to see if South Carolina will live up to the No. 1 ranking and win a championship that was put on hold a year ago.