South Carolina returns to familiar No. 1 spot in women's hoops with new faces, inexperienced roster

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had two equally essential jobs the last few seasons: Developing her talented, national championship core lineup and convincing her younger, just-as-talented prospects that their time would arrive.

It has come this season and a lot quicker than many anticipated as the Gamecocks moved back to No. 1 following an impressive opening week that included scoring 100 points or more in wins against two ranked opponents, Notre Dame and Maryland.

“I actually think they're better than last year's team," Terrapins coach Brenda Frese said after the 114-76 loss.

Staley continued loading up with the best high school players, even after landing a No. 1 recruiting class in 2019 powered by Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal.

This newest group includes dynamic freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley, whose highlight reel, behind-the-back driving basket in the 100-71 win over Notre Dame was the talk of Paris and drew praise from the likes of Magic Johnson.

For many on the outside, the team's lack of experience figured to catch up with the Gamecocks. But South Carolina has shared the ball and and shot better from the outside than when 6-foot-5 All-American Boston was dominating down low.

South Carolina had seven players in double figures against Maryland. None had started for the Gamecocks before this season.

“It's definitely a statement because a lot of people ...” freshman Tessa Jonson said before pausing.

“Were doubting us,” finished sophomore teammate Chloe Kitts.

Kitts had her first collegiate double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds against Maryland while Johnson had 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“We're not going to get too comfortable,” said Kitts, who joined the Gamecocks last December.

Like most of this year's roster, Kitts sweated in practice and watched during games this past spring. All the while, Staley preached that Kitts' time was near.

“She said that to me a lot, filling me with confidence,” said Kitts, who averaged six minutes in 18 appearances last season.

Staley had similar messages for all her backups the last year or two, knowing more playing time — nine of 11 on the roster were McDonald's All Americans — could easily be found through the transfer portal. It was a tricky balance for Staley.

“I know what we do here,” Staley said. “Everybody who plays here has had to sacrifice.”

That meant preparing every day like they were going to start, even if their minutes came at the end of blowout win.

“There's a lot of stress that comes with starting, of being prepared,” Staley said. “They've got to be able to handle that on a daily basis and they have for the most part. But the season's still young."

Staley hasn't kept them all. Saniya Rivers was rated the third-best college prospect in 2021 when she signed with the Gamecocks and appeared in 27 games off the bench during the national championship season. Rivers rode in the title parade in Columbia, then decided to leave for North Carolina State, where she was the Atlantic Coast Conference Sixth Player of the Year last season.

Staley has signed a pair of newcomers for next year ranked among the top 26 prospects and just received a pledge Wednesday for's No. 2 recruit, South Carolina native Joyce Edwards, who chose the Gamecocks over LSU and Clemson.

There are more tests ahead for the young team. It plays at No. 17 North Carolina on Nov. 30 and will meet No. 4 Utah on Dec. 10 at the home of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Women's Showcase.

Bree Hall, a junior who was part of the loaded recruiting class in 2021 with Raven Johnson and Sania Feagin, is ready for all challenges ahead.

“I've been waiting my two years," said Hall, a starter for both wins, “I'm excited to go out there."

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