South Carolina women’s basketball capped its pre-holiday schedule with a historic, emotional and emphatic win against Temple on Thursday, claiming an 87-60 victory to make Dawn Staley the winningest coach in Gamecock history and put No. 4 USC at 11-1 this season.
For the next week or so, South Carolina’s players and coaches will break for the holidays, scattering across the country, before reassembling to face No. 19 Texas A&M on New Year’s Eve. And while the team that will come back from break could look significantly different from the one that easily handled Temple, the victory against the Owls still marks a significant point in the Gamecocks’ development.
So, here are several things Staley and USC fans should celebrate this holiday season — and a few things that should be on their wish list.
A’ja Wilson taking things to a whole new level
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The senior forward was already a two-time All-American and National Player of the Year contender before this season, but she has somehow managed to step it up several more notches 12 games into this campaign.
Despite South Carolina’s issues with depth (more on that later), Wilson is averaging fewer minutes but more points, rebounds, blocks and steals per game than last year. She’s already had nine double doubles and leads the country in efficiency rating and points per 40 minutes.
But where Wilson has really shined as of late is her ability to stretch the floor. Over the past two games, she’s shot 22-of-31 from the floor on a efficient combination of jumpers and layups, and she’s even attempted four 3-pointers, as many as she had through her first three collegiate seasons.
And while Wilson is not going to be mistaken for a sharpshooter anytime soon, she is 3 for 7 from long range this year. Combine that with the dunking ability she flashed during warmups against Temple, and you have a player that Owls coach Tonya Cardoza called “flat-out good.”
“There are not a lot of players like her out there,” Cardoza said. “She’s just a talent, and I’m glad she won’t be there next year.
Bianca Jackson stepping in and stepping up
Injuries to senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore and redshirt senior Lindsey Spann have left South Carolina’s bench at the guard position perilously thin, and the current arrangement is not sustainable long-term, but the Gamecocks have managed to maintain their success in no small part because of a freshman’s contributions.
Bianca Jackson was ranked the No. 43 recruit in her class by ESPN, but she’s put in more quality playing time than others far above her in those rankings, and she’s steadily improved. After a standout defensive performance against Duke put her on the map, Jackson doubled her career high in points against Temple, scoring 16 points and going 4-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Jackson is third on the team in minutes, trailing only captains Tyasha Harris and A’ja Wilson. All of this is not to dismiss the contributions of players such as Doniyah Cliney and Alexis Jennings, but a relatively unheralded freshman playing as crucial a role as Jackson has has been, perhaps, the best surprise for Staley this year.
Lindsey Spann returns for SEC play, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore announces she’ll redshirt
Injuries are something USC has faced before, but the timing of the two guards’ knee injuries was especially bad this year. A lack of depth at guard this early in the season could take a toll on the available players, draining them before the postseason begins.
But nothing can change what’s happened. South Carolina has to hope for the best-case scenario — top 3-point shooter Spann is ready to go on Dec. 31, and Cuevas-Moore decides to return for a fifth year, bolstering the Gamecocks’ 2018-2019 roster.
Both of these outcomes seem probable, as Spann looked mobile and relatively healthy while traveling with the team to Philadelphia, and Cuevas-Moore would likely have a key role for the team as its most veteran player next season.
Te’a Cooper’s waiver is granted
Related to the point above, USC has immediate help at the guard position available in transfer Te’a Cooper. Now the Gamecocks need the NCAA to grant a hardship waiver making Cooper immediately eligible to play.
The timeline on that decision-making process is still a little fuzzy, but it seems likely Staley will find out shortly after Christmas. As for the waiver’s chances of being approved, the NCAA is an inscrutable organization, and while a similar situation worked out well for No. 2 Notre Dame earlier this year, there’s no guarantee South Carolina will receive the same treatment.
Tyasha Harris continues to double double
In the final two games before the holiday break, sophomore guard Tyasha Harris has put together two of the strongest performances of her career, collecting 14 points, 12 assists and six steals against Savannah State and 13 points, 11 assists and four rebounds against Temple.
Coming into the season, Harris talked about scoring more to pick up the slack left by departed Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray. Twelve games in, she’s fourth on the team in points per game, but she has certainly increased her output in the absence of Spann.
The question moving forward will be if Harris can continue to produce double-digit stats when Spann returns from injury. When Spann was putting up big numbers at the beginning of the year, Harris sometimes faded into the background, but the Gamecocks need her to keep her recent form — the form that has made her the SEC leader in assists and steals per game.