South Carolina’s Dawn Staley has work ahead with a new group of players

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Dawn Staley embraced the change on her South Carolina Gamecocks. If only things came a little bit quicker.

Staley opened practice Thursday minus the skilled and accomplished “Freshies,” led by All-Americans Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke who left a legacy of trophies and championships for this team to match.

Did they also leave a blueprint on how to practice for their younger teammates?

“No,” Staley said quickly. “This is a totally different group. The slate is wiped clean. This is all about this particular group. It’s not a bad thing.”

That is, unless you start counting up all those past players accounted for the past four seasons. They reached the past three Final Fours — and might’ve gone four-for-four if COVID-19 didn’t cancel the NCAA Tournament in 2020 — and won it all two years ago.

Those who’ve left put up more than half of South Carolina’s 80.3 points per game last year

“We can’t erase what took place for the last four years,” Staley said. “But we can start anew and give this team it’s own identity. … They’re in a good place.”

Expect plenty of changes in who fans will see on the floor this season. At the end of practice, the Gamecocks had Raven Johnson at the point and Chloe Kitts as her backcourt mate. Kamila Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 cente r who backed up 6-5 Boston the past two years, will likely move into the starting lineup while Staley sorts out which of her long, lanky forwards might see starters’ minutes this fall.

Johnson, who made three starts behind senior Kierra Fletcher a year ago, is making her voice heard by her teammates during early workouts. Johnson, a junior, said she feels more like herself after missing most of her freshman season with a knee injury, then working back into the lineup throughout 2023.

Now, she’s ready to lead.

“It’s got to be a team effort,” Johnson said. “If I’m buying in, everybody’s got to buy in.”

Despite starting fewer games, Johnson played more minutes than Fletcher — she averaged 18 points while Fletcher had 15.

Kitts, who joined the team in midseason last year and played sparingly, is harvesting the benefits of her decision to come early instead of waiting until this summer, Staley said.

Kitts, at 6-2, gives the Gamecocks a skilled passer who can finish at the basket. “She’s a much different player,” Staley said. “She makes good decisions and the offense flows when she’s in the game.”

Cardoso grew comfortable in her role off the bench the past two seasons, helping batter opponents already worn down going up against Boston and her relentless style.

Now, Staley said Cardoso must adjust her mindset that she’s got to be a centerpiece player from the start and assert herself immediately.

“We have some high expectations for some people like Kamilla,” Staley said. “Kamilla has to step in a role of being our dominant post on the inside.”

Too often, Cardoso would pass up an inside shot to a teammate on the wing who’d put up a lower percentage attempt than the center would’ve had down low, Staley said.

“You can’t do that,” Staley said. “You’ve got to bet on yourself sometimes and we’re working with Kamilla to do that.”

Among the freshmen, the most dynamic and highly anticipated player is MaLaysia Fulwiley, a 5-10 guard from Columbia who was a high school highlight reel with her play.

The college game, Staley said, is another level that Fulwiley must get used to.

“When you’re the hometown hero and things you did on the high school level aren’t working here, you’ve got to go in your bag and figure it out,” the coach said. “We’ve got to get her playing sure basketball and that’s a process for her.”

There’s time left before Staley and her players jet off to Paris, where they’ll open the college basketball season against Notre Dame in the City of Lights.

“Until we’re able to be consistent in all of what we’re doing instead of a day here, a day there,” Staley said. “But you see glimpses of them putting it all together.”


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