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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.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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