Skip to main content
Partner logo
Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Gamecocks+

March 26, 2009

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley’s first year at the helm was bookended by challenges. The Gamecocks opened the 2008-09 season with nine sophomores and freshmen on the roster, an entirely new coaching staff and a schedule that featured all of the participants in the previous season’s NCAA Women’s Final Four. There was learning required by everyone involved with the program, but the heaviest burden would fall on the players’ shoulders. The trio of seniors would be invaluable in carrying the youthful team, but the group would be decimated by injury by the end of January, leaving what appeared to be the more favorable part of the SEC schedule in the hands of the uninitiated. From beginning to end, however, Staley’s mantra remained the same.

“I don’t like to make excuses,” she said. “In the beginning of the season, the newness of what we were asking players to do was foreign to them to a certain degree. It’s difficult to break old habits and to create new ones. In the end, we just played. You have to play the hand you’re dealt, and we did that. We had to figure out a way to keep ourselves in games and win games. Winning helps the morale of a team, but we were still encouraged because we were getting better right through the end of the season. We may have taken a step or two back along the way, but for the most part, for who we had and the lack of experience we had, they played as well as they could play.”

At the Tip-Off

From the moment Staley was hired on May 10, 2008, the South Carolina program began a transformation. From off-season conditioning to playbook to uniforms to office renovation, no stone was left unturned in pursuit of living up to Staley’s reputation for success, leaving every player to feel like a freshman again. Early season practice sessions were intense and loaded with information as Staley constantly imparted her knowledge and wisdom on her team. “Your body is an amazing thing. Let it be amazing,” she implored her team in its most exhausted moments.

Heading into the season opener, Staley knew her team would struggle to score, but hoped that their commitment to defense would be enough to carry the Gamecocks until the offense came around. The defense did its job in the first two games, holding Penn State and Clemson to 56 and 52 points, respectively. Carolina came up short on the other end of the court, however, suffering losses in its first two outings.

The first win of the Staley era came against Davidson at Colonial Life Arena thanks to a defense that allowed just 47 points and an offense that exploited the Wildcats’ defensive pressure to score quick-strike layups through much of the second half.


Brionna Dickerson was the Cancun Thanksgiving Classic Tournament MVP.



Ties that Bind

Carolina took its winning ways international with a six-day trip to Cancun, Mexico, for the Cancun Thanksgiving Classic. For a new team, the adventure was as much about basketball as it was forming ties among the players and with the staff.

“It was a good trip for us to bond, to get away, to enjoy each other,” Staley said. “As far as the basketball, we were still learning each other and figuring out who did what well. We had success, but were still not putting it all together, which is quite normal with what we were facing – a new coaching staff and adding players to what was already here. The preseason is too short, especially when you’re coming into a new situation. With the hand we were dealt, we played it out the best that we could. There were players who had great games [in Cancun], but we couldn’t get three or four people hitting some kind of offensive stride at the same time.”

One of those players having success was senior Brionna Dickerson, who earned tournament MVP honors after leading the Gamecocks to the title with 15.0 points per game. The event was just the beginning of what would be a prolific scoring season for the Gamecocks’ quintessential student-athlete, who finished her career among the program’s all-time top 10 in 3-point shooting percentage.

The Carolina defense allowed Ohio and UNC Wilmington to score just 34 and 54 points, respectively, in the tournament and ranked the Gamecocks among the nation’s stingiest teams. Back in the United States, the team took that reputation to Wake Forest, also ranked among the best four defensive teams in the country. Carolina held Wake to just 39.4 percent shooting, but the Demon Deacons collected the victory by picking up 19 steals among the Gamecocks’ 32 turnovers.

South Carolina righted the ship with overwhelming wins over High Point and USC Upstate to set the stage for the most intriguing part of the schedule.


Demetress Adams scored six points and grabbed five rebounds against No. 1 UConn.



Measuring Progress Against the Best

With final exams behind them, the Gamecocks faced their toughest tests over the next three games beginning with a visit from No. 3/4 Stanford arrived on Dec. 19. South Carolina gave the Cardinal all they could handle in the first half before running out of gas against a bigger team in the second half.

“In the first half, I thought we came out well and were in the game,” Staley said following the loss. “We were doing things that we worked on for the past week, and I thought we looked pretty good. We got beat by a good rebounding team, a big body team, and a well-coached basketball team. You have to learn from losses. You have to take good and bad things from it, and we will do both. For our young players to play the way they played, I think it’s promising looking ahead to the SEC season.”

League play was on the horizon for the Gamecocks, but they had plenty of work to do before that. Two days after the physical Stanford game, the Charlotte 49ers arrived, looking to send Carolina into its brief Christmas break with a loss.

The game of runs featured 10 lead changes in the first half alone as both offenses poured in the points. After building a 12-point lead midway through the second half, the Gamecocks sustained a 49er spurt that had the margin down to three with 20 seconds left to play. Still up by three with seven seconds left, Staley laid out a strategy to seal the win against the 49ers aggressive defense, and C.J. Pace delivered the nearly full-court pass to Kennedy streaking up the sideline. The ensuing layup left five seconds on the clock, during which the 49ers hit a 3-pointer, making Kennedy’s the decisive points in the 78-76 victory.

Holiday celebrations were cut short for Carolina with No. 1 Connecticut waiting just three days after Christmas. The Gamecocks limited the Huskies to their lowest point total of the season at that point, but could not muster enough offense to stay with the perennial national contenders.

“I can honestly say we competed through that stretch when we were playing the top three teams in the country,” Staley said after the season ended. “I don’t think we got out-worked in those games, and that’s what you want. You want to work as hard as you can work, and if they’re a better team, so be it. Because we played it in between Stanford and UConn, we were able to win the Charlotte game. I don’t think if we had played a less talented team and won maybe by 30 points, we would have been in a position to beat Charlotte in that intense environment right before Christmas break.”


C.J. Pace and Jewel May were among the first to celebrate the comeback victory at NC State.



Locked In

The good home vibe continued for the Gamecocks, who battled out a win over Jacksonville to lift their record to 7-5. Carolina embarked on just its second true road trip of the season, traveling to NC State. The returning Gamecocks had a bone to pick with the Wolfpack for Carolina’s stunning loss in the second round of the 2008 WNIT in the previous trip to Raleigh. More than that, though, Staley’s group needed its first road win before heading into SEC play.

In a game that changed leads five times in the final minute, South Carolina senior Demetress Adams struck the final blow at the buzzer to give the Gamecocks a 56-55 win. The teams were tied at the half, and the Wolfpack overcame a double-digit Carolina lead midway through the second half to set up late-game heroics for both teams. With just six seconds on the clock, Staley used her final time out to set her team’s final play, which was reminiscent of the final strike against Charlotte just four games prior. Senior C.J. Pace withstood the Wolfpack pressure on her in-bounds pass and arced a perfect strike to Adams just across half-court. The veteran forward eluded a defender on the perimeter before driving the left side of the lane and releasing the shot at the buzzer. The ball hung tantalizingly on the rim before falling through and sending the Gamecock bench charging onto the floor.

“Going into the [NC State] game, I felt good about our team,” Staley said. “They were coming together as a team and getting an understanding of how we needed to play going into the SEC schedule. We hung in there, hung tough to get a win on the road. I thought I was going to be a turnaround for us, something good to go into the SEC part of our season.”

And a turnaround it was. No. 9/8 Auburn opened the SEC schedule at Colonial Life Arena, and the eventual SEC regular-season champion had its hands full against the Gamecocks. Carolina fought back from a 10-point deficit with five minutes left in the game, twice narrowing the gap to two points inside of 15 seconds left to play. In the final throes of the contest, the gap was down to 76-74 after Dickerson’s three-point play and a steal and layup from Kennedy on the ensuing in-bound play. With just 13 seconds left on the clock, the Gamecocks were forced to foul, and the Tigers were able to escape with a four-point victory, their narrowest of the season.

“We had a tremendous effort against Auburn, a team that lost just two SEC games all season,” Staley said. “I thought if we could give that type of effort every night, we would win a lot more basketball games than we’d lose. We were in a good place at that point, playing good basketball. We put ourselves in a position to win those games.”

Staley continued to be happy with her team’s play in the next game at Georgia, but it proved to be another in what would be a string of games in which the Gamecocks were within a handful of plays of a win against a top-tier team. In Athens, Carolina fought back from a six-point deficit in the final five minutes to tie the game twice before the Lady Bulldogs were perfect in four trips to the free-throw line to seal the 69-63 victory.

The Gamecocks suffered a setback at home against Florida before traveling to long-time nemesis Tennessee, ranked No. 13/15 at the time. Carolina was the aggressor early and led at every media time out of the first half, but fell behind early in the second half to suffer their fourth-straight loss.

Despite the losses, few players shone in the spotlight of the early SEC schedule, playing against the league’s elite teams, more than freshman Lakeisha Sutton. She served notice to the league with 17 points in her debut against Auburn and followed it with 18 points and five assists at Georgia. Sutton would go on to reach double figures in nine of the 14 regular-season SEC contests and led all freshmen in scoring average in league games.

When It Rains…

The Gamecocks scratched out their first SEC win at Ole Miss, thanks to a career effort from Dickerson, but still left Oxford with a sour taste in their mouths, worried about Adams, who left the game 10 minutes into the first half with a knee injury. Dickerson willed Carolina to victory, scoring 21 of her career-high 31 points in the second half as she matched her career high with five 3-pointers. Freshman Charenee Stephens also stepped up with her first career double-double (11 points/12 rebounds) to lead the team on the glass, and the team combined to hit 9-of-10 from the free-throw line in the final two minutes to seal the 76-67 victory.

The Ole Miss win sealed Dickerson’s standing among the SEC’s top shooters as she emerged from that game ranked second in the league with 21.2 points per SEC game and was the league’s most prolific and accurate 3-point shooter, hitting 3.6 3-pointers per league game at a 42.9 percent clip. She had scored 17 or more points in every SEC game of the season.

The news on Adams’ injury was finalized the next day – season ending. As a team, the Gamecocks had little time to wallow or console as they prepared for No. 17/18 Vanderbilt. While lightning may not strike twice, the Gamecocks endured déjà vu all over again three days after Adams’ injury.

This time it was Dickerson who would fall midway through the first half, suffering an injury in a melee under the basket. Again, a senior stepped up when it mattered most, and Pace led the way with a career-high 19 points to go with nine rebounds, including five offensive. While Carolina played Vanderbilt even in the second half, the 10-point halftime deficit was too much to overcome.

The Gamecocks played the next two weeks under the possibility that Dickerson could return, and the senior went about her rehab as passionately as she had the team’s regular practices. After three weeks, however, Dickerson’s injury was not progressing enough to allow her to return to the court for the remainder of the season.



Freshman Lakeisha Sutton was thrust into the spotlight and never shied away from the challenge.



Taking the top scorer and top rebounder out of the lineup in the span of two games, Carolina faced the unknown and eight more regular-season SEC games. Players would be forced to play out of position, more minutes and in more featured roles. Just nine players were available to play, and Staley would demand the maximum effort from all nine.

“We didn’t have to start over [after the injuries], but we did have to rely more on outside shooting,” she said. “We didn’t have a steady low-post threat. Demetress [Adams] attracted a lot of attention even if she wasn’t scoring. Losing her took a big piece of people concentrating on her and giving us uncontested outside looks. Now those shots were contested, and we didn’t have Brionna [Dickerson] to shoot them. We asked C.J. [Pace] to do a lot more scoring, and we put a ton of responsibility on Lakeisha [Sutton].”

The Gamecocks battled and worked their coach’s game plan each time out, but still ended the regular season on a 1-7 skid. Carolina was close for most of the games only to see a team with a deeper bench and more offensive threats pull away in the waning minutes of the contest. The lone victory in the stretch was a 68-57 decision over Alabama that saw the inside game doing the damage. Pace and Stephens scored 18 and 15 points, respectively, with Pace narrowly missing the double-double with a game-high nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end.


Seniors C.J. Pace, Demetress Adams and Brionna Dickerson



Celebrating Seniors

Prior to tipoff the final regular-season game, South Carolina honored its trio of seniors. During the tearful presentation of flowers and framed jerseys, the fans enthusiastically honored Adams, Dickerson and Pace, along with their families, for their contributions to the Gamecock program.

Adams closed her time in a Gamecock uniform ranking among the program’s top 10 in four career categories – blocked shots (140, 3rd), field goal percentage (.535, 8th), offensive rebounds (274, 4th) and defensive rebounds (462, 4th). She was All-SEC and SEC All-Defensive Team selection in 2007-08, a break-out junior season that saw her average career highs in both points (10.9 ppg) and rebounds (8.9 rpg). Adams recorded 16 double-doubles and reached double-figure points 36 times in her career. Her 26 rebounds against Arkansas in 2007-08 broke a 33-year-old school record and tied the SEC mark originally set 20 years ago.

Dickerson capped her career with a season that saw her earn ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District honors as she established herself among the SEC’s premier shooters. Ranked among the league’s top-10 scorers for much of the season, she scored 17 or more points in every complete SEC game she played, including a career-high 31 at Ole Miss. At the time of her injury, she ranked second in the league in points per SEC game and was the league’s most prolific and accurate 3-point shooter. She finished her time in a Gamecock uniform ranked eighth in school history in career 3-point field goal percentage at .328.

Pace spent just two seasons in a Carolina jersey but doubled her scoring average from one season to the next. She finished the 2008-09 regular season ranked 16th in the SEC with 6.0 rebounds per game. Pace scored her first career double-double with a 10-point, 11-rebound effort at NC State and scored in double figures six times in the 10 games that either Adams or Dickerson missed with injury.

Flashy Frosh

Guard Lakeisha Sutton became the Gamecocks’ first selection on the SEC’s All-Freshman team since 2005-06 when the league’s coaches unanimously voted her onto the squad. She was the SEC’s highest-scoring freshman in league games (13.6 ppg) while ranking eighth in field goal percentage (.425) and ninth in assists per SEC outing (3.6). Her SEC scoring average was the highest by a freshman in South Carolina history (in SEC beginning with the 1991-92 season) and the highest by a Gamecock since Cristina Ciocan netted 15.1 ppg against SEC opponents in 2002-03.

“Lakeisha was the lone bright spot this season,” Staley said. “Seeing her driving down from Tenton, N.J., very unsure of herself, lacking confidence in her ability to play at this level, it was great to see her grow into a player that pretty much became our go-to player. She truly blossomed. It doesn’t mean she made all the right decisions, but she took in the information and tried to do exactly what we asked her. She did that and more.” Sutton netted a career-high 24 points against USC Upstate, but was at her most prolific scoring in SEC games. She netted double figures nine times in 14 league games, hitting at least 15 points in eight of those nine outings. With relentless drives to the basket, she shot a team-high 114 free throws, hitting 77 of those – both numbers that rank third among freshmen in Gamecock history. In addition to her own offense, she handed out a team-high 51 assists during the season, including seven games of five or more assists.