With 5:59 left in the third quarter between Texas A&M and South Carolina on Sunday, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley pulled junior guard Doniyah Cliney from the game.
The reason why wasn’t a mystery to anyone watching — Cliney, one of only three USC players to start every game this season, was struggling mightily. Through the first four minutes of the second half, she had made just one of six field goal attempts, most of them open looks she just couldn’t connect on.
“Doniyah was open the entire game,” Staley said. “In the first half, she’s like, ‘I’m open, should I not take this shot?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not going to tell you not to take it, but if you keep missing, you have to make that adjustment.’ I don’t want her to be trigger shy because that’s not how I coach. You gotta shoot when you’re open. But maybe reverse it and then come back and get yourself ready so you can get it a different time. You just don’t have to shoot it the first or second time.”
About 90 seconds of game time later, Cliney reentered the game, with A&M now leading by eight points. For a little while, the 6-foot guard was quiet on the stat sheet as the deficit widened to 11 points. But then, with 1:56 left to go in the period, she was fouled.
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From there, Cliney would go on to score nine of her career-high 16 points. After grabbing just two rebounds through more than 28 minutes, she would gather two more, while turning the ball over just once, compared to four times before her break.
“After I took her out in the third quarter just to kind of let her see the game a little bit, I guess she saw where her man was pretty much double-teaming (A’ja Wilson) and it left her open. So she started getting crafty with sneaking behind the defense and attacking the basket and not just relying on shooting outside shots.”
For Staley, Cliney’s performance against Texas A&M in a wild comeback win was indicative of the scoring threat she has the potential to be — if she can develop the consistency to complement top players such as Wilson and Tyasha Harris and take advantage of the holes they create in defenses.
“Doniyah is a wild card for us, because she can score the ball,” Staley said. “She’s just gotta keep her head and stay confident. And she scored a lot of points in high school, and now is the time we need to lean on her a little bit more.”
But while Cliney has the ability to drive and finish with flair in the lane, she also has struggled this season from the perimeter, shooting 25 percent on 3-pointers, and at the free throw line, hitting just 57.9 percent from the charity stripe.
On 2-point shots, however, she is shooting at a 57 percent clip, and that rate has translated to 8.2 points per game, more than double her career high through her first two seasons. Cliney is also on pace to best her career marks in assists, rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes per game, as well as efficiency rating.
The junior’s versatility has been especially crucial this season as the Gamecocks juggle injuries and a lack of experienced depth players. Combined with her steady improvement across the board, this has made Cliney a “glue” player, Staley and her teammates have said.
“I just got to be more aggressive, gotta live up to my expectation as a role player, whether it’s picking up the ball, playing the forward position, point guard, wing, whatever (Staley) wants me to play, I just got to stay ready and prep myself,” Cliney said.
Moving forward, Cliney will try to extend her first ever run of consecutive games with 10 or more points against Ole Miss on Thursday. With redshirt senior Lindsey Spann still limited by a knee injury and redshirt junior Te’a Cooper still waiting for the NCAA to declare her eligible, Cliney will almost certainly start her 14th straight game.
“It starts in practice,’ Cliney said of how she plans to sustain her success. “I just keep playing aggressive, doing what I do best.”
Who: USC (12-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Ole Miss (10-4, 0-1)
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Oxford, Miss.