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Oct. 16, 2008

With nine sophomores and freshmen on the roster, head coach Dawn Staley has used the preseason to prepare her team and herself for the rigors of the elite non-conference and SEC foes that await in 2008-09, including all of the 2008 NCAA Final Four teams.

Preseason and offseason practice and conditioning are important for every team in the country, but maybe none moreso than the youthful Gamecocks and their new head coach. As players and coaches got to know each other, both parties were cramming as if final exams were just around the corner.

“Our team is hungry to win and receptive to everything our coaching staff has to offer,” Staley said of the team’s preseason workouts. “We’re learning new concepts, which they haven’t mastered at this point but that they’ve certainly embraced. When you’re trying to put a team together and do things differently, that’s half the battle.”

Staley and her staff have just three seniors on the roster, but they provide a wealth of experience against Southeastern Conference foes. Demetress Adams and Brionna Dickerson, who have a combined 79 games of SEC play under their belts, will have to show the way for their younger teammates and maybe occasionally their coaches as the Gamecocks face one of the most difficult schedules in recent memory.

“Our seniors will have to be leaders from the standpoint that they have been around the block,” Staley said. “They have more experience than I do playing in the SEC and for South Carolina. So, it starts with them and trickles down to the players that are less experienced. They have done a tremendous job already of letting our inexperienced, younger players know that it’s tough to come by wins in this conference and that it certainly will be a lot tougher if the work ethic isn’t in place.”

As she heads into her inaugural campaign at South Carolina, Staley is still evaluating the talent and strengths of her team. Everyone on the roster, regardless of class or experience, has a chance to start and to play significant minutes. There were no preconceived notions about the lineup from the coaches, and the team responded in the preseason with the same open-mindedness and commitment to earning the spots.

“The one constant on our team is hard work,” Staley said. “They all want to do well early because no playing time is calculated at this point. Everyone is working hard and not looking over their shoulders at different teammates, so we’re getting to see what everyone’s commitment and skills are.”

The Philosophy
The first season with a new head coach means transition for any team. Players that have been in the program have to adjust to new personalities, expectations and possibly, responsibilities. First-year players have even more to juggle in acclimating to the college environment. Staley knows the challenges that lie ahead, but it does not change her passion or expectations for her team.

“I’m not so much into the win-loss type of results,” Staley said. “If we put in the work and compete at the highest level we’re capable of, the results will take care of themselves.”

“The work” was something Staley was known for as a player, and Coach Staley expects nothing less from those who now play for her. The coach’s satisfaction will be in direct proportion with her team’s effort on every play of every game. As a result, this year’s team will be built to defend as if their lives depended on it. The offensive mentality is just as passionate although slightly less formulated.

“We are going to defend like no other,” Staley said. “We’re going to disrupt people’s offenses and make them a little bit uncomfortable about what they’re trying to do. And, how we react to other teams doing that to us will determine if we are going to be a good team or a great team.”

The Backcourt
The consummate point guard, Staley has a roster teeming with guards. Eight guards make up the 13-player roster for the Gamecocks, and none of them has a specifically defined role as they head into the season. The disparity in guards to post players is an advantage for a Staley-coached team, however, when it comes to speed of play.

“We’re trying to settle on ways in which to find playing time for everybody,” Staley said. “That might mean playing a little small with four guards and a post player on the floor. What we give up in some areas with that lineup, we will make up for in others. We’ll instantly be a lot quicker.”


Senior guard Brionna Dickerson



Headlining the guard lineup is senior Brionna Dickerson. The team’s third-leading scorer last season, Dickerson was a key scorer for the squad while battling an early foot injury throughout the season. She finished the season hitting 32.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line and 10.4 points per game. A proven spot-up shooter, Staley is looking for Dickerson to expand her game this season.

“Brionna can shoot the ball with the best of them, so we’re going to find opportunities for her to get a rhythm and shoot shots that are comfortable for her,” Staley said. “But, in a change from how she’s played in the past, we’re working with her on getting to the basket as well. We need her to score in a lot of different ways for us to be successful. She’s capable of doing that, and she’s putting in the work to do it.”

Redshirt freshman Courtney Newton will have a shot at playing on the wing as well. After a standout high school career as a shooting guard, she was transitioning to point guard prior to the knee injury that derailed her first season as a Gamecock. Staley wants her to go back to her natural position, where her shooting touch and toughness will put points on the board.

“Courtney is going to find a way onto the floor because she is smart, works hard and doesn’t back down from anyone,” Staley said. “I love a player who is that competitive, who isn’t going to give anybody an inch – not even her teammates.”

If Staley wants to ramp up the speed of play, she needs to look no further than sophomore Samone Kennedy, who started six of the 31 games in which she played as a freshman. What she lacks in size at 5-foot-4, she makes up for in speed and court vision. Playing just 18.8 minutes per game last season, Kennedy ranked seventh in the SEC with 3.42 assists per game. She was in the league’s top 10 with a 1.31-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as well.

“Samone is very, very quick and a good floor general,” Staley said. “She is someone who can run our basketball team on both ends of the floor. She is working to become more of an offensive threat, and she is going to have to quarterback our defense. We need her to be out front disrupting the other team’s point guard, and she is not going to shy away from that challenge.”

Providing some power for the guards is sophomore Lauren “Cocoa” Falohun. She saw limited playing time last season after redshirting in 2006-07, but Staley has been pleasantly surprised by what Falohun has shown in the preseason.

“Cocoa works extremely hard,” Staley said. “She can defend well and can score, although she doesn’t always look to score herself. She can do a lot of thing on both sides of the ball because she is physically so strong.”

Three guards are in their first season at South Carolina, not including transfer Valerie Nainima who will have to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules, and will have just as much chance to play as any of the returners.

“Our freshmen are going to have to transition quickly from high school and AAU basketball to college basketball,” Staley said. “They are very talented, but it’s a huge transition. They are going to have to play, though, and they are working hard at finding their comfort zones.”

Staley added LaKeisha Sutton to the roster over the summer, and the Trenton, N.J., native brings an air of success to the squad. The 5-foot-9 guard was the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year scoring 19.6 points per game as a senior and led her high school team to back-to-back state championships. Her AAU team, the New Jersey Flames, also picked up consecutive New Jersey U17 state titles.

“Lakeisha is a tremendous defender and will be a contributor for us once she gets through the transition to college basketball,” Staley said. “She is open to information, though, and will get much better when she stops being afraid of making a mistake.”

Tonia Williams is another signee who has had success throughout her high school career at Houston County High in Warner Robins, Ga. Named Class 5A player of the year and first-team all-state, the 6-foot-1 Williams helped the Bears to three straight regional titles, posting 20 points and 14 rebounds per game.

“Tonia can score the basketball,” Staley said. “She is a big guard who is receptive to learning in this transition time. She wants to play and is showing us that by working hard to shed some of the bad habits all freshmen have.”

Another summer signee, Miranda Tate rounds out the list of guards at Staley’s disposal. Her Bolingbrook High School team picked up the state title her sophomore year and got back to the title game the following season. The six-foot tall Tate led the team with 14.4 points per game and 37 3-pointers during the championship season and earned all-state honors as a junior.

“Miranda is another big guard that should be able to score points for us,” Staley said. “There’s just not enough of her right now. She will have to build up her strength to be able to stay healthy through a season of play at this level.”

Check back Friday for a preview of the frontcourt and the schedule.