The 2019-20 WCBB season was abruptly halted in March just like every other sport as the global pandemic ravaged the globe. At the time of the NCAA canceling the remainder of the season, including the NCAA Tournament aka “March Madness” the South Carolina Gamecocks led by Dawn Staley were the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets in “Nawlins” aka New Orleans aka “On The Bayou” for the second time since 2017.
The team was 32-1 and had swept through the SEC season unblemished led by two great seniors in Tyasha Harris and Minkah Herbert Harrigan. Three budding freshman surrounded these two budding senior leaders to comprise a juggernaut in the making.
So with the 2020-21 season here and the Gamecocks looking to pursue a Final Four berth and national championship, there are some real questions facing Staley and her team.
Who’s gonna replace Harris and Herbert-Harrigan?
Herbert-Harrigan and Harris started every single game last season and kept the young Gamecocks running smoothly with their veteran leadership. They combined for better than 25 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks per game. Staley repeatedly called them the “glue” to keeping the operation intact and on track in the midst of a dream season. And while nowhere near short on talent ,having 9 former five-star recruits on this year’s roster, Staley says that replacing those two seniors won’t come without challenges and sacrifices.
Replacing “Ty” is extremely vital as she set the table for the team as a four-year starter at point guard. The choices to replace her are junior Destanni Henderson who thrived in a reserve role last season. And sophomore Zia Cooke, who started opposite Ty Harris, but played more off the ball while Harris was the floor general. Both are capable but need work being full-time decision-makers.
Staley believes both Henderson and Cooke are capable leaders and do it in different ways. Henderson is quiet and low maintenance while Cooke does it more emphatically and can take over games. Staley says she’ll cut the playbook down about 25% without a four-year senior starter to orchestrate everything.
So far, so good as they are 3-0.
Replacing “KiKi” comes with it’s own set of challenges. She’s a 6’2 forward capable of stepping out to defend the perimeter to the interior and she also flexes a mid-range jumper that forced opponents to respect her outside of the paint. But what will be missed most is her fiery and aggressive personality that pumped energy into the team.
Staley says you have to be a “killer” to replace “KiKi” and she sees a lot of her team as “killers” like for instance Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Aaliyah Boston, Laeticia Amihere, and Victaris Saxton all possess the killer mentality but their super nice unlike “Kiki”.
So the biggest question for Staley is… Can nice players win a title?
Positionally, Amihere, Saxton and Grissett have all played minutes in Herbert Harrigan’s spot early this season. Grissett is the team’s lone senior and she brings a 6’2 frame with the ball-handling of a guard. While Saxton emerged as a locker room leader last season and usually provides a lot intensity.
The No.1-ranked Gamecocks currently sit at 3-0 in the young season with their best win over No.18 Gonzaga. They’ll be challenged by the usual suspects in No. 2 Stanford led by head coach Tara VanDerveer, No.3 UCONN led by Geno Auriemma and his fabulous freshman Paige Bueckers (#1 Ranked Player For Class The Class Of 2020).
In The Hunt:
No. 4 Baylor and Kim Mulkey who got star guard Didi Richards back just 38 days after she was temporarily paralyzed after a fall at practice, No.5 Louisville and Jeff Walz. No. 6 Mississippi State, led by former Tennessee Volunteers and WNBA star Nikki-McCray Penson, will also be tough.
South Carolina will face a tough and talented 8th-ranked NC State team tonight in a game that should be very competitive.The Wolfpack possesses great three-point shooting with a dominant big in Elissa Cunane, and their inside outside combination of one-in and four-out is tough to defend if the shooters are hitting.
Boston and Cunane both measure 6-foot-5 with impressive wingspans and dominate in the low post like throwback centers.
Let’s see if the Gamecocks are up to the early-season challenge in Columbia. And the host of other challenges they’ll face to get to the mountaintop again as they did in 2017 led by reigning WNBA MVP Aja Wilson (The Key Recruit During Staley’s Tenure In Columbia).