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South Carolina enters season as favorites with five returning starters

(Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

When South Carolina sophomore Aliyah Boston’s last second put-back took an unfriendly bounce off the back rim, giving Stanford the Final Four win and a ticket to the championship game last April, the immediate outpouring of devastation on Boston’s face was both endearing and heartbreaking.

Even though her first two seasons at South Carolina, as the centerpiece of 2019’s top recruiting class, were significantly thwarted by Covid-19, Boston’s production on the court has been a steadying force. Now entering her junior year, the 6’5” forward is averaging 13.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game through her college career, having led the nation in rebounds last season, when she was named the best center in the country for the second year in a row

Head Coach Dawn Staley, coming off a gold medal summer with USA Basketball, is no doubt looking forward to seeing what Boston can do as a junior. But she also has ten other reasons to feel optimistic about the 2021-22 season. All of Boston’s ten teammates from last season’s Final Four, including starters Destanni Henderson, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, and Victaria Saxton, are back on campus, now with invaluable Final Four experience under their belts.

As if a sequel with the entire starring cast isn’t enough, Staley has once again demonstrated her keen ability to connect with the elite youngsters of the game and will be adding the top 2021 recruiting class to her squad this season. 

Incoming freshmen Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers, and Sania Feagin are ranked two, three, and four in the nation for their class, and will be joined by the fourteenth overall prospect Bree Hall. Whether senior point guard Henderson will have a season to take newbie Johnson under her wing, or the freshman works her way past Henderson into the starting role, the Gamecocks are in strong hands with those two options at the helm. Don’t be surprised if Rivers, 2021’s Gatorade National Player of the Year, also earns a starting spot by year’s end.

The four freshmen aren’t the only newcomers coming to campus in Columbia this fall. While some see the transfer portal as a fickle two-headed monster, the portal gods shined on Staley this off-season when things fell apart at Syracuse and she signed Kamilla Cardoso, a 6’7” transfer who earned ACC Freshman of the year and ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year last season while playing for the Orange.

Clearly, things look exceptionally good on paper for Staley and her team. But a loaded roster in October is miles and mountains away from a National Championship in April. Being ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll is nice, but it won’t mean anything if the season ends in heartbreak once again. 

Luckily for South Carolina, Staley isn’t the type of coach to put her cart before the horse, as she endeavors to bring a second national title home for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina begins their season with an exhibition game against Benedict, Monday, Nov. 1st. The Gamecocks’ first regular season game is against No. 5 NC State on Tuesday, Nov. 9th.