DALLAS — When asked recently whether Aliyah Boston deserves a statue outside of Colonial Life Arena, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley credited not only the legacy the the 2021-22 national player of the year will leave in Columbia but also that of Boston’s fellow seniors.
“I think this entire class deserves to be just lifted up,” Staley said ahead of the NCAA tournament. “They’re deserving of something, of us really celebrating them and what they have meant to our program, to our university, to the city of Columbia and the state of South Carolina.”
Fresh off a stunning upset in the national semifinal to No. 2 seed Iowa, Staley’s attention will start to shift to the future of what South Carolina women’s basketball will look like, not just likely post-Boston but also without the decorated senior class that led the Gamecocks to three consecutive Final Four appearances.
“When that buzzer went off, it was kind of just an end of an era, it feels like,” Boston said. “We had a special group.”
In the offseason, South Carolina could lose all five starters — Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Victaria Saxton and Kierra Fletcher — as well as reserves Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson. Fletcher, a graduate transfer from Georgia Tech, and Saxton, a fifth-year senior for the Gamecocks, are both out of eligibility, while Boston, Cooke, Beal and Amihere may forgo using their COVID-19 “freebie” year and turn their sights to playing professionally.
While Boston has long been the presumptive No. 1 overall WNBA pick, she told reporters after South Carolina’s Final Four loss that she hasn’t decided whether she will return for a fifth-year, although Staley added that if Boston seeks her advice, she’d tell her to go pro.
Boston, Cooke, Beal, Amihere and Thompson all arrived in Columbia as part of a highly touted recruiting class in 2019, since called “The Freshies,” with Boston, Cooke and Beal serving as four-year starters. Since then, they’ve lived up to the hype and more, finishing their careers 40-1 at home at Colonial Life Arena and going 129-9 overall. More than their on-court accolades though, Staley has repeatedly commended the group’s maturity and quality as teammates and people.
“Domination is a process.”
Assuming Boston and the others are gone, so much roster turnover — and a standard of Final Fours and championships in Columbia more firmly in place now than ever — what will the immediate future hold for South Carolina.
“The returners, they’ve got to get us back here,” Staley said. “This is fun to come to the Final Four as a participant. It’s fun. I don’t like coming other than coming as a participant, and I didn’t really have to think about that for three years. So let’s hope we can get back here. I hope the loss, they feel it deeply, and they’ll work hard to get back here.”
Staley has seven players from this season’s roster expected to return: Johnson, Kamilla Cardoso, Bree Hall and Sania Feagin, as well as freshmen Ashlyn Watkins and Talaysia Cooper and early enrollee Chloe Kitts. Tessa Johnson, Sahyna Jah and Milaysia Fulwiley will join in the fall as incoming freshmen. And that doesn’t take into account any additions or departures via the transfer portal.
“A lot of people will step up, and this postseason is helping them come into their own,” Boston told ESPN in the regional round. “I have heard Raven [Johnson] say a few times, ‘The team the next couple of years is going to look great.’ I think that’s important because they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do when we lose [this senior class]?’ They see themselves playing on the court. They’re excited about what’s coming.”
Cardoso, who will be a senior, and Johnson, who will be a redshirt sophomore, figure to play especially prominent roles after serving as major contributors in 2022-23. Despite each averaging only roughly 19 minutes per game this season, the impact they had in those minutes is a huge reason the Gamecocks’ depth became their calling card and helped them go undefeated through 36 games.
The per-40 stats for 6-foot-7 Cardoso, the heir apparent to Boston as South Carolina’s dominant post player, offer a glimpse of what she can bring in a larger role: 20.8 points, 18.1 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game. But unlike in her previous two seasons in Columbia, when she was playing behind older posts, bouts of inconsistency or foul trouble will be much more consequential. There is no Boston or Saxton to bail her out.
“The Freshies have been the best teammates. They will help you no matter what and get you prepared,” Cardoso told ESPN. “I’m going to have to step up with everyone we’re losing — not just me, but all of us who are coming back — and try to do the same things our seniors have done for us.
“I do enjoy the role I’ve taken. … It’s exciting to me to be doing all these things, and I’ll try to do them even better next season.”
Added Staley: “I want Kamilla to be dominant. She can be just that. Not just an in-the-paint scorer, I want her to be able to shoot 15-footers. I want her to be able to shoot some 3s. Not become Jump Shot Judy, but to protect what she does best. What she does best is in the paint. She can make layups. You have to balance that.”
After Johnson was sidelined most of her freshman year with an ACL injury, Staley saw early this season that the 5-8 point guard would elevate the Gamecocks’ offense by forcing players to get the ball where they are supposed to receive it, not where they wanted to get it. Despite not starting, Johnson’s 3.4 assists per game are a team high, while she has also shown she can be an impactful defender.
“The players that are returning have talked about the leadership roles for next year,” Johnson said. “We’re definitely taking notes off the Freshies and what they’ve taught us. We’ve seen each day how they show pro habits. How to come in here and outwork others and keep that mindset. They’ve showed us how to be mentally strong; this is not easy. How to trust the coaches and work to be dominant on the court.”
Added Boston following the Iowa loss: “After the game I told Raven, ‘this is your team.'” And Staley: “Raven is our future.”
Outside of those two players, who else takes on a massive role is more nebulous. One candidate is 6-0 guard and rising junior Hall, who has shown promising flashes and will be an experienced returner. In South Carolina’s Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA, she compiled 10 points (tied for a team high) in 16 minutes, with three rebounds, an assist and a steal.
“I think the biggest difference is my confidence,” Hall said after the game about her growth. “I think last year I kind of struggled, especially at this time, with my confidence and knowing what I’m supposed to be doing out there on the court. … Coach has really been in my ear telling me to just do what I do best.”
Who else will support Cardoso in the post? Feagin and Watkins earned double-digit minutes off the bench in South Carolina’s first-round matchup versus Norfolk State. Staley said she wanted “some of our young post players to really get some experience playing in big games and having them be counted on, and give them some experience to understand that it’s going to take more than what they did today for us to be successful next year.”
Staley has praised Feagin’s ability to score, while admitting her learning curve comes on the defensive end. The 6-3 rising junior forward stayed in Columbia in the summer of 2022 to work on her game and get in better shape, a transformation that is still in progress.
“If she would have had the year that she’s having this year last year, she would probably be much better off, but she’s got to go through it,” Staley said. “You’ve got to go through it. The year in which she made a commitment to work a little bit harder and change her body and to see herself as being dominant, domination is a process. It’s a process that we’ve journeyed with Aliyah, and it’s sort of the same thing.”
While Watkins, a 6-3 forward, exploded onto the scene in November by recording the first dunk in program history, Staley has also used her to bring a defensive edge, such as when facing Missouri’s top scorer, Hayley Frank, in January. The coach said Watkins successfully took advantage of her athleticism and ability to maneuver around screens.
With Fletcher and Cooke departing, Cooper — a 6-0 rising sophomore — could see a larger role backing up Johnson at the point, especially if she’s able to use her first year in Columbia to absorb the lessons from the elder players ahead of her.
“I think our class as a whole has been able to impact the young ones, because the people before us are the reason we’re here,” Boston said. “I think one of our focuses has been showing the younger ones — or even people who have been recruited by South Carolina — the path of how we do things and why it’s so important to come here and what this program is about.”
And then there’s the promise of the players who have barely or not yet suited up for the Gamecocks. Fulwiley and Kitts are top-20 recruits, with Kitts playing just 124 minutes since enrolling in late December. Staley told the Greenville News that Fulwiley is a “generational talent” after she dunked the ball in a game by bouncing it to herself before throwing it down.
Staley did this before when now-two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson and the other members of the 2017 national title-winning team departed South Carolina. Now a new challenge, and opportunity, begins for Staley and her staff.
“We’re not going to have the same team,” Staley said. “We’re going to have a different team that have different characteristics, that have different players. They’re going to be put in positions that will fill a void that’s going to be left by some of our seniors.”
M.A. Voepel contributed to this story.
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