The floor at Carolina Coliseum has hosted some all-time basketball greats since it opened in 1968.
On Friday morning, the list of prestigious visitors to the Gamecocks’ training facility got substantially longer, as Dawn Staley hosted her first Team USA training camp in Columbia.
Among the 22 players at the training camp, which will run though Sunday, there are four-time Olympic gold medalists Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, historically great WNBA players like Maya Moore and Angel McCoughtry, and recent NCAA stars like Kelsey Plum and Jewell Loyd.
But for South Carolina fans, the most important players participating in the camp were there for the first time – former Gamecock stars Tiffany Mitchell and Allisha Gray.
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For Mitchell and Gray, who were invited to the camp after other members of the U.S. National Team pool could not attend for various reasons, the opportunity to play alongside the world’s very best marked both a continued validation of South Carolina as a program and their own individual ambitions to represent their country on the international stage.
“I’m just honored to be out here,” Gray said. “To even be on the court with players like this shows that I worked hard, and it’s just a privilege to be able to play with these people. I can learn from them.”
Staley echoed that sentiment.
“When our players decide they want to come to South Carolina, they give us all these goals and dreams they have, and to be part of a goal outside of college, on this level, I’m just proud, I’m like a proud mama,” Staley said.
Mitchell and Gray were not the only players with connections to USC to benefit from Friday’s practice – current members of South Carolina’s basketball team, including A’ja Wilson, watched from the sidelines as the team scrimmaged.
“I’m happy for our players to get a chance to see the best play and how they operate,” Staley said. “And I did speak to a couple of them on the sideline, and they got their mouths open, and this is kinda what we try to push them to gear for when it comes to approaching the game this way.”
Specifically, Staley said she wanted her current Gamecocks to learn from the Olympians about how to appreciate the resources available to them.
“I hope they take a desire to want to play at this level to the point that they’ll start taking advantage of the resources they have here – our coaching staff, they’ve got a great facility, they’ve got people that are invested in their careers and want them to play at this level,” Staley said. “But you can’t just think it, you can’t wish it. You have to do it, and it doesn’t start at the end of your senior year. It starts in the beginning. They have the dream, that’s the beginning. Now they’ve got to go out and get it.”
Mitchell said she had spoken with several current players as well.
“I think it was really good for them to step in, stick their head in, watch how we compete, how we communicate, how we talk,” Mitchell said.
On the flip side, given South Carolina’s recent struggles on the court – Staley described its last game against Alabama as “lackluster” – she said coaching the very best players in the country has been a breeze.
“We’re doing some of the stuff we’re doing with our South Carolina basketball team. They just make it look a lot better,” Staley said. “If you forget to put some options in there, they’ll show you what you forgot. And you’re like, ‘Aha, yeah, I meant to give you guys that option,’ whereas in college, you have to tell them every single option. They don’t feel the game as well as these guys.”
That proficiency has led to a more relaxed Staley, Mitchell said.
“She’s a little less on edge just because everyone has been there, done that type of thing,” Mitchell said. “But it’s a lot easier to teach people on the Olympic team, she doesn’t have to start with freshmen or sophomores from high school. It’s a lot more teaching in college, and on the national team it’s a lot more just do it, fall into place.”
The dedication and knowledge, Staley said, pays off with players who know what they need to do and how they can get better.
“The biggest difference between college and here is that they communicate,” Staley said. “They wear their emotions on their shoulders and let people know what’s going on out here good and bad. That’s basketball utopia.”
USA Basketball and Staley continue their training camp on Saturday and Sunday, before likely reconvening in April.