Laeticia Amihere, the top-ten recruit who was sometimes forgotten last year, is the Gamecocks' most intriguing player.
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WBB: Amihere could be ready for breakout season

The Gamecocks’ most intriguing player going into this season has to be Laeticia Amihere, the former top-ten recruit who became an afterthought at times last season.

I know because at different points in the offseason, unsolicited, people have reached out to me to say either they can’t understand why Amihere doesn’t transfer since she overmatched, or that she is going to be the next great Gamecock. Only time will tell who is right, but if you are in the second group you have good company.

Twenty-nine minutes into her recent Zoom press conference, Dawn Staley paused while answering a question about another player. “We haven’t even talked about Laeticia. Laeticia looks like a totally different player than she did last year.”

So let’s talk about her. First, the basics: Amihere was a top ten recruit, part of the vaunted 2019 class. But she suffered a serious knee injury during her senior season of high school. Staley had an extra scholarship, so Amihere chose to enroll at South Carolina for the 2019 spring semester, taking a redshirt so she could get better medical attention.

Amihere was healthy enough to play by the beginning of last season, but she was on a minutes restriction. She also had to wear a bulky brace that limited her movement and sapped her athleticism. The limitations were noticeable.

The transfer crowd often noted that Amihere lacked the strength and athleticism to finish around the basket last season. To be fair, they weren’t wrong. She really had to gather herself to jump, and that momentary pause is enough for SEC defenses to recover. But that isn’t the whole story.

Go back and read Amihere’s recruiting profile. She first got fame for dunking in a game. ESPN called her “explosively athletic,” “ultra-athletic,” “among the most athletic prospects in any class,” with “pogo-stick hops.”

And she didn’t lose it all with the knee injury. Amihere had a 410-pound deadlift last year, best on the team, and she could still jump, it just wasn’t showing up in games. It also didn’t help that on two different occasions Amihere had to leave the team to be with Team Canada. The second trip, which cost her three games, came after she scored her career-high of 16 points and prevented her from building on that performance. As a result, Staley looks at it almost like a redshirt year in football, where Amihere was able to play enough to get her feet wet and be ready to go this season, when the brace is off.

“People probably looked at Laeticia last year and probably looked at me and said why do I play her so much when she’s probably not performing as much as we need,” Staley said. “I didn't want her to have another freshman year this year. Because she got game experience she understands and it won’t be her first time doing it when we play again. I’m quite sure she’s looking at Victaria (Saxton) and she’s looking at Aliyah (Boston) and she wants some of those minutes that they got last year. It’s a very healthy thing.”

There is also an argument to be made that perception didn’t match production. Amihere only played 12.8 minutes per game, yet she averaged 4.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks. She also shot 7-13 from three, showing she is more than capable of stretching the floor and opening up space to drive the ball. And if she made more of her free throws (just 54%), the scoring would have gone up. If we assume Amihere plays twice as many minutes this season and double all her stats (it’s a crude projection, but we’ll use it), she should average 9.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. By comparison, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the player Amihere is trying to replace, averaged 26.1 minutes, 13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 44% from three in her stellar senior season. Not only are Amihere’s projections comparable, but according to Aliyah Boston, Amihere has stepped into Herbert Harrigan’s shoes in another way. Amihere has replaced Herbert Harrigan as the team’s emotional spark plug (or “dog,” in the words of analyst Carolyn Peck).

“I think LA has been doing a great job with that,” Boston said. “So has Zia (Cooke). They’re doing a great job with that dog mentality.”

Amihere has been a leader in non-canine ways as well. Over the summer she organized a seminar on campus to discuss racial issues. She has been instrumental in voter registration drives both within the program and the student body as a whole, and is active in the FCA. Over the summer Staley mused that Amihere could be the Prime Minister of Canada. That sounds like a pretty good fallback.