The two toughest jobs for an athlete at South Carolina:
1. Play quarterback for Steve Spurrier.
(tie) 1. Play point guard for Dawn Staley.
“Coach Staley, she truly believes, no matter what, a point guard has to be a leader,” sophomore Khadijah Sessions said. “I have to be that leader.”
Many would have crumpled under the strain. Staley’s point guards aren’t expected just to direct the team into its offensive sets, bring the ball up, take the opponent’s point guard on defense and score the ball. They’re expected to be Staley.
Staley was so good when she played, re-defining the position and the sport, that it’s difficult for her to understand why somebody else can’t do the same.
Sessions signed up for all of it, and after a freshman season spent learning under three-year starter Ieasia Walker, she has an answer for Staley.
She can do it. Even with Staley’s ever-watchful eye and other guards waiting in the wings, she can do it.
“She is a hard person on the point guards,” Sessions said. “She’s a really competitive coach. But we never really clashed. All kids take things in differently, but you’ve still got to listen to it. That’s how you’re going to stay on the floor.”
Sessions is one of the biggest keys toward seeing if South Carolina can replicate its success from the past two years, when Staley’s reclamation project burst forth with two 25-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances.
Replacing the savvy Walker, the Gamecocks’ third-leading scorer last year with 9.8 points per game and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in steals per SEC game, won’t be easy.
Trying to do that with the pressure of being Staley’s point guard has the approximate weight of a grand piano on Sessions’ narrow shoulders.
But she was a highly decorated point guard at Myrtle Beach High, averaging almost 30 points per game as a senior to win Parade All-America honors. She lived in the gym and the weight room over the summer after her freshman year. She’s in much better shape, physically and mentally, and her psyche is peachy after her teammates elected her as one of the Gamecocks’ three captains.
She was battling redshirt freshman Tiffany Davis for the role early in the preseason, but a minor hamstring injury cost Davis practice time. Sessions started USC’s 96-35 exhibition whipping of North Greenville and played well, scoring 10 points with four assists and four rebounds, finding the Gamecocks’ superior height in the paint and directing traffic.
It’s her ball, her team now — no more warm-ups.
“She’s very mobile,” said Olivia Gaines, one of the team’s two scholarship newcomers and a challenger for minutes at shooting guard. “She puts us all into place like a point guard should do. I see her doing good things for us this year.”
Gaines painted the picture, giggling when asked how many times Staley stops practice to instruct the point guards. “Nine out of 10 plays,” she said. “It’s really intense for the point guards. She looks for a lot in them.”
Even the players who aren’t point guards see what the point guards go through every day.
“It can be rough,” forward Aleighsa Welch said, “but coach always picks them back up, and we do the same, after practice or at home or in study hall. Khadijah has done a great job of handling it.”
Sessions is still learning how to hit the on-off switch between being a floor general and a take-over scorer like she was in high school, but having a strong supporting cast is making it easier.
The Gamecocks can play differently than they have during Staley’s first five years because they have height this year — against North Greenville, which didn’t have a starter taller than 6-feet, USC scored 78 points in the paint.
That won’t be the case when the Gamecocks play a North Carolina or Tennessee. Sessions might have to be that big scorer if Welch, Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates are being neutralized by taller, heavier post players.
“You have to gain Coach’s trust for you to have the ball put in your hands,” Sessions said. “Hopefully, I can gain that trust throughout practice and game time and come to show her that I’ll be able to knock those shots down and take over the game.”
Sessions also has worked on her leadership skills, taking a lot from a season under Walker’s tutelage.
“She takes a lot of pride in what she’s doing,” Sessions said of Walker. “It is not easy to run the team and perform at a high level, and she was able to do that.”
The process of becoming as close to Staley’s level as possible will be a long one. Sessions also knows the freshman frustration she felt last year is the only fuel she needs to avoid sitting down.
“That was probably the most frustrating part, just being able to transform my game to the college game,” Sessions said. “Those are two different games, and in the preseason, I had a lot of trouble. It got a little bit better for me, second half of the season. I’ve just got to keep building off that.”
A new point guard for a new season. Staley has gone through the process before and she knows it can be harsh. But her record doesn’t lie. It produces wins, and exceptionally strong point guards.
Will Sessions be the latest?
“She’s not (the same person),” Staley said. “Is she going to be the perfect point guard? No. Not by any means. But she’s put in the work and the effort and she’s playing at a high, high level. That’s a complete 180 from last year.