South Carolina women’s basketball star A’ja Wilson may or may not play Sunday when the No. 9 Gamecocks welcome No. 6 Tennessee to Colonial Life Arena — both she and coach Dawn Staley have indicated it will likely be a game time decision as to whether Wilson’s sprained ankle will keep her off the court.
But Staley and the rest of USC’s squad has had two days of practice since beating Auburn on Thursday, and in that time, they’ve been working under the assumption that Wilson will not play, Staley said. And if that’s the case, South Carolina will be relying on some combination of underclassmen to fill the massive role Wilson currently shoulders for the Gamecocks.
“I think what we do if (A’ja’s) not able to play is keep the game simple for our young post players, just give them things they can remember and execute,” Staley said. “From a defensive standpoint, we’re going to do what we do. We’re going to play as we play no matter who we have. So from that standpoint, that’s easy. Offensively, it’s being able to substitute for 24 points. That’s the hardest part.”
Specifically, sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan would likely be the one to take Wilson’s spot in the starting lineup, while freshmen Lele Grissett and LaDazhia Williams would see their playing time increase. Wilson is third in the country with 23.2 points per game, while the three young forwards combine to average 13 points.
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“I feel like our bench will be able to help us this game,” redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings said. “We just had a great practice and the game plan is in, now all we have to do is execute it.
“Collectively we’re very skilled individuals, so I feel like we can find a good balance from what A’ja provided for us. ... We each bring a different aspect to it so I think we’ll be just fine.”
Staley was full of praise for Jennings, who she said is “well on her way” to becoming an All-American forward, and also expressed optimism that Herbert Harrigan gained valuable experience against Missouri when Wilson struggled with foul trouble that will serve her well against a Tennessee team with two veteran frontcourt players in Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared.
“I just knew I had to step up and be confident and play,” Herbert Harrigan said of that Missouri game. She will have to play with confidence again versus Russell and Nared, both All-American candidates who made the Naismith Award midseason watchlist of the 25 best players in the country.
One of the only drawbacks of Wilson’s brilliance throughout the first portion of the season, Staley said, is that the younger forwards have not had many opportunities to play in competitive situations, and when they have, they’ve been on a “short leash” that gets frequently yanked to put Wilson back in.
On Sunday, however, if Wilson cannot play, Staley will have no choice but to give her underclassmen a longer leash, and she said she understands what most pundits will say if that is the case.
“Hopefully Sunday afternoon they’ll be able to stick to the game plan and execute, and we’ll get a win most people don’t think we’ll be able to get without A’ja,” Staley said.
South Carolina coach, player face former team
USC assistant coach Jolette Law and guard Te’a Cooper have helped Staley and South Carolina plan for Sunday’s game, thanks to their history with Tennessee: Law came to Columbia this offseason after five years on the bench for the Lady Vols, while Cooper spent two years in Knoxville before transferring to the Gamecocks.
“I think you do,” Staley said when asked if having the former Vols at USC gives them special insight into their opponent. “They’ve been in their program ... and they’re not giving up any secrets — we know Tennessee extremely well from the times that we’ve played them. They’re just confirming what we already know.”