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South Carolina’s Sophomore Stars Are Ready to Do More Than Just Win a Championship

GREENVILLE, SC - MARCH 08: Aliyah Boston (4) and Brea Beal (12) of South Carolina hold the trophy during the SEC Championship Women's college basketball game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the South Carolina Gamecocks on March 8, 2020, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For the South Carolina Gamecocks, the 2020-2021 season is all about unfinished business and building a legacy. In Dawn Staley’s 13th season as head coach, South Carolina is still in the process of cementing its position as a perennial powerhouse.

The top of the line recruiting that has become the standard for South Carolina was no more apparent than last season, when Staley brought in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country and started three freshmen all season on the way to an SEC championship and a No. 1 ranking in the AP and Coaches’ polls. Of course, with South Carolina in line for the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and with regional play in Greenville, the tournament and the season were canceled, and there was no crowning moment.

What makes the unfinished business narrative so enticing is also what leaves it incomplete. The path to a national championship in 2020 was there, but it’s still waiting in 2021, 2022 and beyond. Staley and the South Carolina coaching staff are recruiting better than anyone right now, as last year’s success so readily indicates. And with a trio of experienced underclassmen leading the way, there’s really no limit as to how good this program can be.

The top-rated recruiting class coming into the season, South Carolina’s freshmen contributed immediately last year. Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal put on a clinic on making the leap from high school, starting all 32 games. And while South Carolina lost its two senior starters, Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, to the WNBA draft, Staley says the two left a legacy of leadership. Already, the coach has credited Victaria Saxton with filling the void and leading the charge.

South Carolina, affected by the pandemic, returned to campus for the first time in mid-July. Even when the season seemed in doubt, Staley has never been worried about her team lacking motivation. The coach described her group as ultra-competitive, and coming off a dominating season with a 32-1 record and holding the nation’s longest winning streak, South Carolina will be ready to prove they can hang with anyone.

Like so many coaches, Staley has been forced to guide her team through a preseason program without knowing when or where games will be played. A complete schedule has to yet be released, but to hear Boston describe it, the team isn’t concerned.

“We’re not really sure what schedule we’re looking at or things like that, but we know the start date of November 25, so we just keep working no matter what, because we know something, something is going to come,” Boston said.

Last year, Boston became the first player in program history to be named the National Freshman of the Year. Rewriting the record books while averaging 12.5 points and 9.4 rebounds a game, Boston was also named the conference’s Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year. Cooke averaged 12.1 points per game, and Staley has said she considers the guard one of the most athletic players she has ever coached. Beal will only grow on her 6 points and 5.4 rebounds from her freshman season.

And of course, there are so many others poised to contribute. Destanni Henderson played some of her best basketball at the end of last season, getting named to the SEC All-Tournament team after a 4-for-9 performance against Arkansas in the semis. LeLe Grissett started games in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, averaged 6.4 points per game last season, and had the highest field goal percentage on the team at 62.8%. Laeticia Amihere, who missed four games while helping Team Canada qualify for the Olympics, averaged 1.1 blocks per game.

South Carolina added five star point guard Eniya Russell as the only member of the 2020 recruiting class, and Olivia Thompson, a walk on in the 2019 class, was awarded a scholarship and will look to build on her high school reputation of prolific 3-point shooting after making 11-of-36 in her first collegiate season.

Altogether, this is a deep, talented team, one that is paradoxically both young and experienced. And yet no matter what happens for South Carolina this season, this team’s business will remain unfinished. For the program to firmly establish itself as one of basketball’s unquestionable elites, dominating the next decade as thoroughly as UConn the last two, winning in 2021 would only be a first, but necessary step.

But if the Gamecocks prevail, watch out: The 2021 recruiting class is already the highest ranked in the nation, led by guard Raven Johnson, guard Saniya Rivers and forward Sania Feagin, the second through fourth-ranked players in the class, and guard Aubryanna Hall, who is ranked 14th.

Add those players to a defending champion and, well—let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s still 2020, after all.