Ahead of schedule, Staley’s Gamecocks aim higher

Elite recruiting class gives USC more to build with next year

dcloninger@thestate.comMarch 31, 2014 

It hurt to end the season, as it should have. While nobody expected South Carolina to have this kind of year, the Gamecocks wanted more for themselves as the season went on. They expected the Sweet 16, but they desired another step or two and didn’t get them.

Now comes the much-anticipated next phase. It began in the fall, when four prized recruits pledged to the Gamecocks. It kept building as South Carolina had a season much better than anyone expected. Not many players could wait to get back in the gym so next year could begin.

Next year, USC has the ability to reach a level Dawn Staley always thought the program was capable of. The Gamecocks likely will enter as the preseason pick to win the SEC after returning all of it’s talent from a team that won the SEC regular-season crown. They also will be expected to advance much further than the Sweet 16.

“I feel really good about the future of our program,” Staley said. “We’re probably a little bit ahead of schedule with what we’re trying to do as far as continuing to play on the second weekend and the third weekend of the NCAA tournament.”

Looking ahead to 2014-15

LOSSES: The Gamecocks lose one player, senior forward Wilka Montout. Montout played in 30 games but started one (Senior Night). She averaged 1.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.5 minutes per game.

RETURNEES: G India Farmer (So.), G Olivia Gaines (Sr.), G Khadijah Sessions (Jr.), G Tiffany Davis (RSo.), G LeAnna Morrison (RJr.), G Tina Roy (RJr.), F Aleighsa Welch (Sr.), G Tiffany Mitchell (Jr.), G Asia Dozier (Jr.), C Elem Ibiam (Sr.), C Alaina Coates (So.)

The Gamecocks return all five starters, including the SEC Player of the Year in Mitchell and Freshman/Co-Sixth Woman of the Year in Coates. Welch was a first-team All-SEC pick. All of the Gamecocks’ top nine scorers are back.

ADDITIONS: F Jatarie White (Fr.), G Kaydra Duckett (Fr.) G Bianca Cuevas (Fr.), G Doniyah Cliney (Fr.)

White and Cuevas are McDonald’s All-Americans, and White is the No. 7 prospect in the country. Duckett comes to USC after a sterling career at Dreher High, where she won two state championships. Cliney is a do-everything guard from New Jersey .

USC also is in the hunt for top national prospect A’ja Wilson, who will reveal her college decision on April 16. Wilson, also a McDonald’s All-American, has USC among her final four schools with Tennessee, UConn and North Carolina. The class is ranked fourth in the country without Wilson. With her, it could rise to No. 2 or No. 1. Either way, the Gamecocks are stocked.

SCHEDULE: Staley played a soft non-conference slate this year and may be compelled to toughen it a bit next season to prepare USC for the competition it will see in March. One of those games, USC has confirmed, is a game at UConn, with UConn coming to Columbia in 2015-16.

North Carolina has been a staple of playing a December game at Myrtle Beach, and it should continue as long as no other games bump against it (as it did last season). USC will host archrival Clemson and should get return home games from Southern Cal and San Diego State. The Gamecocks did not travel to a Thanksgiving or Christmas tournament this year and might try to do so next year.

The seeds are planted. USC surprised many this year, but the experience gained should help lead to more success next season.

“I didn’t know what to expect, because we lost so much last year in what Ieasia (Walker), Ashley (Bruner) and Sancheon (White) brought to the table,” Welch said. “To see us blossom into this team and see us exceed a lot of expectations this year, I couldn’t be more proud. There’s nowhere to go but up from here.”

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