Dawn Staley hasn’t shied away from acknowledging the slate is wiped clean for South Carolina entering the 2023-24 campaign. The Gamecocks said goodbye to six major contributors from last year’s squad, five of whom were drafted into the WNBA, including No. 1 pick and 2023 Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston.
But Staley and her team are putting it out there: Between the talent they return and who they’ve brought in this offseason, don’t believe they’re starting over in Columbia, South Carolina.
“It’s not a rebuild,” Staley said on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” last week. “I think for who we had sitting on the bench behind some of those WNBA players were really talented individuals who really just had to wait their turn. Now is their turn, now is time for them to step in…
“They’ll take some hits, but they’re fighters.”
Added returner Kamilla Cardoso: “Expect the unexpected.”
The first peek at this new-look South Carolina team comes Monday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season’s opening week, when the No. 6 Gamecocks play No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris in the Aflac Oui-Play event.
The last time we saw the Gamecocks play was in their third consecutive Final Four appearance, where they fell to Iowa in the semifinals for their only loss of the season. They lost Boston, as well as fellow “Freshies” Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere, who went 129-9 in their four years in Columbia and guided South Carolina to the 2022 national title, to either the WNBA or graduation. Victaria Saxton and Kierra Fletcher also departed after exhausting their collegiate eligibility.
The Gamecocks enter 2023-24 with five newcomers — transfers Te-Hina Paopao and center Sakima Walker, as well as three freshmen — and will lean on six returners to help this group uphold the South Carolina standard of play.
South Carolina’s reserves were the top scoring bench unit in the nation last season, averaging 36.1 points per game. Yet due to who was playing in front of them last season, only two of those returners averaged over 15 minutes per game: Cardoso, a center, and Raven Johnson, a point guard. Those two, alongside Paopao, guard Bree Hall and forward Sania Feagin, rounded out South Carolina’s starting five in its exhibition game last week against Rutgers, a 100-55 win.
Expect a “fast, scrappy, young group,” Johnson said, that likes to get out in transition, play tough defense and already has good chemistry.
“I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat.”
“We’re playing together, we’re sharing the ball,” Cardoso added. “We want everybody to touch the ball, and I think we actually have really good chemistry right now even though it hasn’t been a long time.”
With newcomers and different players in different roles, Staley and her staff have approached this year’s Gamecocks differently than they coached the teams of the past four years.
“They’re talented but there are some things that, as a coach, you’ve got to pivot,” Staley told Andscape’s Sean Hurd. “This year, we’re teaching a whole lot, we’re talking a whole lot. We’re just doing a whole lot. We have a different routine.
“For the past four years we had a certain routine where, we’re good. We picked it up and hit the ground running. Now it’s just like, whoa, what did we used to do before we had that Freshie class? It’s kind of cool but kind of different. It’s not bad but it’s a different challenge and I’m drawn to challenges.”
Cardoso — an impactful presence in 18.8 minutes per game off the bench last season — has shown flashes of dominance. The next step for Cardoso is to string together a consistent high level of play with a larger role.
Staley has been transparent about her expectations for Cardoso: The 6-foot-7 center should touch the ball every time the team sets up in the half court.
Cardoso is well-poised to take the leap, not only after learning from Boston for two years, but also after a strong run in the FIBA AmeriCup this summer, where she was the event’s MVP and helped Brazil take home gold. Cardoso put up 20 points, 11 rebounds and three steals in the gold medal contest against the United States, which featured Gamecocks teammate Johnson.
The experience helped Cardoso gain confidence to shoot the ball more and talk on the court to teammates, she said. She has seen that translate with the Gamecocks.
“That was a great experience,” Cardoso said of the AmeriCup. “It’s great playing for my country. I had a lot of experienced players on my team, so I see them as role models, and I use that to my benefit. I think that can help me this season because I was playing against some really good players, very aggressive, and that can definitely get me ready for this season.”
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South Carolina’s guards can also help open things up for Cardoso inside by knocking down shots from the perimeter. Staley believes they’ll be much better there this year after the Gamecocks shot 31.0% and 30.6% from the 3-point arc the past two seasons, which ranked 53rd and 49th in the country, respectively.
“We surrounded Kamilla with a little bit more shooting and hopefully we’ll put that all together to where people won’t pack it in on us and people won’t be in a zone as much as they’ve been in the past three or four seasons,” Staley said.
Paopao, an Oregon transfer, should be able to help, as she shot 39% or better in two of her three seasons in Eugene. Staley has spoken glowingly of her lead backcourt pair of Paopao and Johnson, saying recently, “I don’t think I’ve ever had two lead guards of this caliber on our basketball team in all of my years of coaching.”
Johnson — who assumes more of a leadership role entering her third season in the program — describes herself and Paopao as bringing different skill sets. Paopao is more of a change-of-pace player, with Johnson being more of a fast point guard. Those differences allow them to feed off each other, she said.
MiLaysia Fulwiley is another guard who turns heads. Staley has called the 5-foot-10 freshman from Columbia “generational” on several occasions. Fulwiley hit 4-of-9 on 3-pointers against Rutgers, finishing with 16 points, and went viral earlier this year with a one-handed dunk.
“I don’t think anyone has the talent that she has,” Johnson said, complimenting Fulwiley’s willingness to learn, competitive edge and “it” factor. Forward Sahnya Jah and Guard Tessa Johnson round out South Carolina’s freshman class, ranked No. 2 by ESPN.
After Monday’s game against Notre Dame, the Gamecocks will face three more ranked teams in nonconference play: No. 14 Maryland (Nov. 12), No. 16 North Carolina (Nov. 30) and No. 5 Utah (Dec. 10). After league play begins, South Carolina will meet No. 2 UConn (Feb. 11).
Regardless of any early learning curves they have to work through, South Carolina should be well-positioned to compete on a high level.
“To kind of reflect on this team from the summer to today — like night and day,” Staley told Hurd. “I didn’t know how long it would take for them to get there and there’s still a lot of room for this team to grow, but they’ve grown incredibly, and then they grow on you. You see their fight, you see their wanting to be better. They’re a cohesive unit almost to a fault. It’s cool to kind of experience this with them.”
And even amid a changing of the guard for South Carolina, the internal expectations and goals remain the same.
“Win,” Johnson said. “That’s the only expectation.”
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