After relying on the same core of players for the past two seasons, the South Carolina women’s basketball team is about to undergo a major transformation.
Eight of the 13 players currently on the 2016-17 roster did not play a single minute for the Gamecocks last season when USC surprisingly saw its season end in chilly Sioux Falls, S.D. at the hands of Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
The eight newcomers include four freshmen (Araion Bradshaw, Mikiah Harrigan, Tyahsa Harris, Victoria Patrick), three transfers (Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray, Alexis Jennings) and one player who sat out last season because of an injury (Tiffany Davis).
Kaela Davis and Gray are eligible to play for the Gamecocks in 2016-17 after sitting out last season following their decisions to depart their former schools after two productive years and join USC.
The duo showcases the Gamecocks’ increasing reliance on transfers as they seek the school’s elusive first national title in women’s basketball.
“I’d much rather have four-year players, but sometimes things don’t work out at certain places,” Dawn Staley said recently. “Our program has made itself attractive to high level players. They want to play at the highest level and they want to win the national championship. That looks appealing to them. And for what they do, it looks appealing to us. We’ve had great experiences with every transfer we’ve had.”
Last season, Virginia graduate transfer Sarah Imovbioh averaged 4.2 points and 5.0 rebounds per game for the Gamecocks.
Much like Division I men’s basketball, the number of transfers in women’s hoops in rising, so the market should provide sufficient quality players available with experience to interest Staley.
“We can almost anticipate there will be a lot of movement from a transfer standpoint,” Staley said. “We have someone tracking it. Once a transfer becomes available, we track it because the way recruiting is at this point, we’ve got to one-up people. Once we hear something, we make calls to see if they have any interest in South Carolina. It’s based on need.”
For the current generation of players, transferring is not the black eye it once was in the past. Instead, players calmly moving from team-to-team has become an acceptable part of the women’s game just as it has for men’s basketball for several years.
“It’s a part of what this generation is,” Staley said. “Sometimes their first try doesn’t work out for different reasons. I’m OK with that. Bottom line, you want kids that are happy. When they are happy, they can be successful. If they can’t be happy in your system, you have to wish them well.”
Kaela Davis, a 6-foor-2 guard, was a two-time All-ACC player for Georgia Tech (1st team, 2015; 2nd team 2014) and set the ACC record for freshman scoring in 2013-14. A highly touted recruit, she was the ACC’s top scorer in league games in 2014-15, averaging 19.2 points.
While USC didn’t recruit Davis aggressively, she is good friends with former Gamecock Kelsey Bone (transferred to Texas A&M), who suggested South Carolina as a soft landing spot for her.
“That was very interesting,” Staley said. “Sometimes it works out that way.”
Gray, a 6-foot-0 guard, was a first-team All-ACC player for North Carolina in 2014-15 and a WBCA Honorable Mention All-American. She reached 1,000 career points in two seasons at North Carolina as she led team in scoring in 2014-15, averaging 15.2 points to rank eighth in the ACC.
Jennings, a 6-foot-2 forward, averaged 10.0 points and 7.1 rebounds for Kentucky last season, reaching double digits in scoring 19 times. She must sit out the 2016-17 campaign and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Jennings shot 49.3 percent (132-268) from the floor last season.
“Alexus is a good get for us,” Staley said. “She has done well in our league. She is a sweetheart, but a terror on the court. She rebounds, she’s physical, she’s great with her back to the basket, she can stretch the floor out, so we’re going to use her in a way similar to A’ja Wilson. She won’t just be confined to the low post. She’ll play on the perimeter as well.”
Jennings was familiar with the South Carolina coaching staff through the recruiting process and developed a relationship with them, so she did not walk into a situation where she was starting from square one.
Jennings also participated in tryouts for the USA U-19 team coached by Staley a couple of years ago.
“We had several conversations with Alexis,” Staley said. “When she visited Kentucky, she committed there. But I know she had in mind her conversations with our staff members (when she transferred) and her experience at the USA trails two years when I was coaching that particular team.”
-- The 2016-17 nonconference schedule began to take shape when USC announced four games (three at home) as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge in November:
Nov. 20 vs. Hampton
Nov. 21 vs. Maine
Nov. 22 vs. St. Peter’s
Nov. 27 vs. Louisville (at Springfield, Mass.)
-- Through 17 games, former Gamecock Tiffany Mitchell is averaging 11.2 points and 1.9 rebounds per game for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. Mitchell is the Fever’s second leading scorer behind Tamika Catchings.