As South Carolina women’s basketball gets set to tip off the 2023-2024 season, there will definitely be a different look on the floor after the Gamecocks graduated all five starters, and seven players overall, from last year’s team which went 36-1 and made its third straight NCAA Final Four. But don’t tell head coach Dawn Staley that it’s a rebuilding year.
“It’s not a rebuild. It’s not a rebuild for us because we’re very talented,” said Staley who is starting her 16th year with the program. “We’ve got talent on our team. We just lack a little bit of game day experience. I mean, half of our roster have played some high-level basketball. We just have to up their experience. We have to create that, simulate that in practice, so when the games come, it’s more natural for them.
“We could not put them in a better situation because of the players that we had in place. We would have liked to experience some of them having a little bit more experience, being in a starting lineup, but they couldn’t break into it. I’m excited for this team. We’re hunting. That’s not a bad place to be.”
The Gamecocks have big shoes to fill in the paint with the graduation of four-time All-American and 2022 National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, along with five-year standout Victaria Saxton. The Gamecocks do return 6’7” senior Kamilla Cardoso, who earned second team All-SEC and SEC Sixth Woman of the Year honors last season after averaging 9.8 points per game and ranking third in the SEC with 8.5 rebounds per game. Staley said that Cardoso has taken steps forward in a lot of ways this year.
“Kamilla is being dominant,” said Staley. “She has to do it on the floor though. She’s doing it here (in practice), so the next step is to be dominant every play that she is on the floor in the game. She communicates extremely well, and she has listeners.
“You hear Kamilla. You didn’t hear her in the past two years that she’s been with us. She’s communicative, she’s energetic. I think she’s playing with a zest of wanting to dominate. That’s what we want. She’s very, very competitive. If she’s open, we need her to touch the basketball.”
Junior Sania Feagin is also back, and although she played sparingly the last couple of years behind Boston, Saxton, and Cardoso, this could be her time to shine as well.
“Feagin has stepped up pretty big,” Staley said. “We have been playing her out on the perimeter and playing her in the post. We’ll have to play her at both positions. She and (sophomore) Ashlyn Watkins have been really consistent.”
Senior transfer Sakima Walker, who played two years at Rutgers before finding her groove as the National Junior College Player of the Year last season at Northwest Florida State will also provide another big presence with her 6’5” frame.
“Sakima utilizes her height in a great way,” Staley said. “She really has a great understanding of how we want to play. She is very, very coachable. She has a great understanding of the game.”
You can’t talk about a Staley team without talking about the point guard, and the Gamecocks have some good competition there, headlined by returning redshirt sophomore Raven Johnson, who averaged 4.2 points and ranked ninth in the SEC with 3.9 assists per game despite coming off the bench most of last year, and senior transfer Te-Hina Paopao, who was a three-time All-PAC 12 selection at Oregon.
“Without a doubt, she (Paopao) can score the basketball,” Staley said. “My question mark was will she be a willing defender. She’s committed to it. I mean, she’s come a long way. When she sticks her nose in there, she takes charges.
“She’s got a great voice, a great command of our basketball team. I mean, she and Raven play off each other extremely well. I think they work well together. They can work well independent of each other. Both of them will be lead guards for us. I mean, 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.”
Junior guard Bree Hall is also back for her third year for the Garnet and Black. After playing a reserve role and gaining a reputation as a stopper on defense, Staley expects her role to expand.
“She’s a junior now, so she should understand what it is to take on a leadership role because she had so many great leaders, her first two years in college,” Staley said. “She’s trying to take on that heavy load. She’s doing a great job of balancing it right now. We haven’t played any games, and we know that mentally it’s going to take a toll. What’s going to happen if she has a bad game or two bad games, consecutive bad games? That’s where you’ll see where she is in her progress.”
Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts, who joined the team midway through last season has also made tremendous progress according to Staley. She and a trio of freshmen will have opportunities to make an impact right away.
“I mean, they all look like freshmen,” Staley said of rookies MiLaysia Fulwiley, Tessa Johnson, and Sahnya Jah. “Some of them look great at times, then other times they look like a penny with a hole in it. But that’s their process.
“I think she (MiLaysia Fulwiley) is a generational talent. Generational to me is being able to do things that no other people can do. She does things that I haven’t seen a women’s basketball player do. The moves she makes, the shiftiness, ability to shoot the long ball, get to the basket at will. She’s very coachable. She wants to be great. We have to teach her greatness is a process. She really understands that. She’s taken a liking to that.
“Tessa Johnson can flat-out shoot the basketball. The rest of her is trying to rid herself of her high school ways because the pace is quicker. That’s a process for her. I do think Tessa needs to be a little bit more selfish in scoring the basketball because she can do that.”
“Sahnya Jah is athletically gifted. Elite athlete. Unafraid to mix it up. Great offensive rebounder. Great defender. Willing to mix it up. So, she’s going to make me play her. Like, she’s going to make me play her by how she approaches practice every day.
“We’re going to have to define some roles. We only have 11 players, so everybody’s going to get an opportunity to play.”