At first glance down the South Carolina women’s basketball team’s bench during Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against UNC Asheville, there was no sign of Alaina Coates.
This isn’t unheard of, an injured player not being in the thick of things during a big game. But a look at the crowd behind the bench, and still no Coates looking on, as the top-seeded Gamecocks dismantled the Bulldogs 90-40 in Colonial Life Arena.
So where was the senior standout?
“She’s home at the moment,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said.
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That might seem a little out of the way for an All-SEC player, sidelined by recurring ankle injuries, but there’s a reason.
“Our medical staff, they want her to just continue to rehab and not jump around and further injure herself,” Staley said of Coates, who’s been a key cog for the team for four seasons.
This was what USC was missing, not only in terms of a talented player, but in terms of presence: a teammate who got so animated and energized on the bench, she had to be pulled away for fear she might hurt herself.
Gamecocks star forward A’ja Wilson said she and her teammates didn’t even know about Coates’ impending absence until getting to the arena. She said they had to be so focused on the game, it didn’t allow them to dwell on the absence.
Wilson couldn’t recall a time when Coates, healthy or hurt, wasn’t around on the bench.
“I know it’s probably tough for her to watch it at home,” Wilson said. “But I think the biggest thing with her is just resting her injury, and that’s something that we really want her to do, and that’s something that she needs to do.”
Coates has been a key contributor for the Gamecocks. A McDonalds All-American at Dutch Fork High School, she was a heavily used backup her first two years. She became a starter and All-American as a junior and was averaging a career-best 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds this season.
But then came a series of ankle injuries that knocked her out of three games, including two in the SEC Tournament. During that run, she was shown leaping up and down on the bad ankle on the bench. After grinding out a few minutes against Kentucky, she was shut down for good.
The Gamecocks will move on without one pillar of the dominant run of the past four years. But her coach took heart in the way the team tried to replicate some of her flair and spirit.
“A lot of us, in substituting her not being here, I thought our bench is pretty energetic,” Staley said. “They are kind of using her absence as a place in which they can fill the void.”