WBB: Sessions transformation complete
Khadijah Sessions is having one of the best season of any Gamecock point guard in recent memory, but there are no numbers to prove it. You have to watch her to see the impact.
It's the image that symbolizes the Dawn Staley Gamecocks as much as any. Sessions, in a defensive stance - she even seems to play offense in a defensive stance - dreads flowing, headband pulled low over her eyes, staring down an opponent. No flash. No style. She's out there to turn the game into a back alley brawl. And she's ready for whatever you've got.
Sessions is one of those uniquely collegiate athletes: the player fans try to replace for four years, then lament when they graduate. Just among the four point guards on South Carolina's roster, Sessions is not the best scorer, shooter, passer, or defender. She doesn't stand out in the box score, and is typically relegated to the "Notes" section of a game recap, if she gets mentioned at all. Yet there she is, game after game, controlling the ebb and flow of the game from the sport's most important position.
Playing point guard for Staley may be the most difficult, imposing task in sports. Not only are you playing for one of the greatest players in the history of your sport, but you are playing for the person who defined how your position is played in modern women's basketball. The award for the nation's best guard is called the Dawn Staley Award for a reason. If that weren't imposing enough, Staley expects perfection from her point guards and isn't afraid to let everyone know it. Her admonishing of players during practice would make Frank Martin blush.
Statistically, Sessions is having a disappointing season. Her scoring average is the lowest of her career, down three points from last season, and aside from steals, she has shown minimal improvement in other areas. But she is playing her best basketball, and she is doing it for the best team in program history.
Sessions did not start the season opener against Southern Cal. It had more to do with Staley experimenting with the "jumbo" lineup than anything involving Sessions, but the move immediately created questions about where Sessions fit into the rotation. If Tiffany Mitchell could slide over and start at point guard, and McDonald's All-American Bianca Cuevas could live up to her billing, where did that leave Sessions.
"Khadijah does great things for us, she is our point guard," Staley said after the game. It was a rare statement of fact from Staley, who loves to motivate through competition.
And Staley meant it. Sessions was back in the starting lineup for the next game against Clemson, and she has stayed there ever since, though it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Sessions.
She reached a low point against Missouri. The Tigers, undermanned and overmatched, threw out a junk defense, playing five on four. No defender even honored Sessions, leaving her completely unguarded and packing the lane. She was confused. Her game plan was useless. And she was the most visible culprit for a lackluster 60-49 win.
Sessions is not a pure shooter - she takes most of her shots on kick outs late in the shot clock - and Missouri keyed on that. Missouri was also counting on Sessions to be a hesitant shooter. When you have Mitchell, Alaina Coates, A'ja Wilson, and Aleighsa Welch at your disposal, you let them do the shooting. At the same time, Sessions is not the offensive liability she was painted as following the game.
"They knew that I have trouble shooting the ball, but I kept my composure and found the open man and it worked out for us," she said after the game. "It's a repetition thing. I'm going to continue to stay in the gym and continue to work on my shot, and continue to take open shots in the game."
That mentality paid off. Sessions didn't score in the next game against Florida, but the offense regained its rhythm, and Cuevas was hot, stealing some of the minutes at point guard. Since then, Sessions has been a beast. She has scored seven or more points five times, and has been aggressive on both ends of the court. In SEC games, Sessions is shooting 51 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three. In the last four games, she is even better, shooting 7-10 from behind the arc.
Staley thinks having the flashy Cuevas coming off the bench both motivates and inspires Sessions. Cuevas is in many ways the polar opposite of Sessions. Sessions is a deliberate floor general, pushing the pace when there is a clear advantage, but much more likely to slow things down to set up one of the Gamecocks' scorers. Cuevas on the other hand, is a one-woman fast break, a player who pushes the pace, numbers be damned. That play gets Cuevas on the highlight reels, but it also gets her on the bench in critical moments.
Staley has said several times that having Cuevas on the bench has helped to push Sessions. Seeing Cuevas' relentless, though sometimes ill-advised, aggression on offense has helped Sessions see how to pick her spots. She now sees how to find her moment without detracting from the team.
"A lot has to do with seeing Bianca do some of the things that she thought maybe she could not do," Staley said shortly before Sessions' hot streak began. "She's seeing where she's having a tremendous impact on the game on the defensive side of the ball but also offensively she's getting into a groove."
Sessions was once like Cuevas. As a freshman, she was a backup point guard who brought sporadic scoring outbursts and inconsistent game management. She wasn't as explosive as Cuevas; a knee injury during Sessions' senior year of high school robbed her of some of her quickness. She wore a bulky knee brace for much of her freshman year, and then an ankle injury hampered her for over a month during her sophomore campaign. She put up strong numbers and was named a team captain, but was not yet the player Staley needed her to be: a linebacker in sneakers who can organize the team with a single look.
To understand what Staley wants from her point guards, one has to understand what kind of player Staley was. She "only" averaged 16 points in her college career, eight points in her WNBA career, and just over four points during her illustrious Olympic career. She only scored when she needed to, setting up her teammates and playing tough defense. As a coach, she expects the same. It takes time for players to adapt, and Sessions was no exception.
This season, the transformation is complete. While some fans have been clamoring to put Cuevas and her flashy offense in the starting lineup, Sessions has evolved into a shut down defender.
Staley has often called Olivia Gaines her "one-woman press" because of Gaines' tenacious on-ball defense. Sessions has become Gaines' equal this season. Though Gaines was credited with the steal at the end of the Duke game that set up the game-winning basket, Sessions was right there swiping the ball away. The Texas A&M game was Sessions' most dominant. She notched four steals and a block. The Aggies committed 16 turnovers, and Sessions had a hand in most of them (the four steals is almost a running joke: she has been credited with four steals six times this season, despite numerous games when she appeared to have several more). Even when she didn't create a turnover, Sessions kept the Aggie point guards from being able to initiate the offense until there were 10-15 seconds left on the shot clock.
There has been no let up since then, culminating in the Arkansas game, when Sessions scored or assisted on the Gamecocks' first 12 points. At one point in the first half, the Gamecocks had outscored the Razorbacks 21-6 when Sessions was in the game, and been outscored 11-2 while she was on the bench.
Sessions has adopted Staley's mentality. Both are carefree off the court, but on the court Sessions brings an intensity and flat out meanness that drives the Gamecocks. They are bullies on the court, and it starts out at the top of the key. There is no category for "mean" in the box score, but it wins games.
South Carolina versus Tennessee
When: Monday, Feb. 23, 9 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena
The game is the annual Play 4 Kay Pink Out game. Fans are asked to wear pink, pink rally towels will be given out, and breast cancer survivors and those still battling will make a lap around the court at halftime. Both teams are 13-0 in the SEC and the winner will be the favorite to win the SEC championship. South Carolina is pushing for a sellout as it looks to notch just its second home win over Tennessee, and first under Staley.
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