Coming into SEC tournament, South Carolina women’s basketball looked like a team on a downswing. The No. 8 Gamecocks had dropped a tough regular season finale to Tennessee, senior forward A’ja Wilson was suffering from vertigo, and the team hadn’t been blowing out overmatched opponents with its usual ease.
A week later, and USC has three impressive wins, its fourth consecutive SEC tournament title and all sorts of momentum heading into the NCAA tournament. And in some ways, it started with head coach Dawn Staley’s decision to keep her best player on the bench — at least to begin games.
On Friday against Tennessee, the All-American Wilson was cleared to play restricted minutes by the team’s medical staff. Rather than start her star in hopes of building up a quick lead, Staley chose to keep Wilson on the bench, only inserting her for short periods of time.
And it worked. Wilson had 24 points in 19 minutes. Fellow forward Alexis Jennings had a double double with 19 points and 12 rebounds. And Wilson’s replacement in the starting lineup, sophomore Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, scored 15 points on 70 percent shooting.
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So on Saturday against Georgia, even with Wilson cleared to play more minutes, Staley started her on the bench again. And it worked, again, with Wilson putting up 21 points and Herbert Harrigan contributing 14 of her own.
After that game, Herbert Harrigan admitted it was “a little weird” to start in front of Wilson, one of the most storied players in SEC history. But she also said it was “a great feeling,” and Wilson was actually very much on board, according to Staley, asking to come off the bench.
“That's how I started my career here. I came off the bench my freshman year, and Coach has trust in this lineup, and I trust her with the lineup that she has in,” Wilson explained. “So I'm not going against that at all. I like it. I like coming off the bench right now, because I get to see things, and I also get my rest in, so I can get that extra motor on teams that have been playing for five minutes or six minutes or whenever I get in.”
“I just felt like the continuity of what we had, and the confidence that (Herbert Harrigan) was playing with, I thought it would be great to start her,” Staley explained her decision at the time. “We’ll probably start with (Herbert Harrigan) and go for there.”
Sure enough, on Sunday, Herbert Harrigan was in the starting lineup while Wilson was on the bench to start against undefeated Mississippi State, and Herbert Harrigan made her coach look like a genius by scoring 11 points in the first quarter to help stake the Gamecocks to an early lead.
Then, later in the game, Wilson took over with high energy and excitement, helping keep MSU at bay and powering South Carolina to the conference title.
“I feel like A’ja, that’s a big bang to come off the bench,” Herbert Harrigan said of how the lineup switch boosted the offense. “It’s great, and Coach Staley did, and I trust her in what she’s doing, so we just go with the gameplan.”
All told, Wilson averaged 20.3 points and Herbert Harrigan averaged 14 throughout the three games, and both were named to the all-tournament team, so the switch certainly seemed to work in the short-term.
“I’m not going to fix what’s not broken. My biggest thing was just, how can I adjust, how can I be the A’ja that they need coming off the bench?” Wilson said. “And it kinda helped me see the game in a different way, because I’m not starting the game, I’m not at the jump ball. So for (Herbert Harrigan) to go in and play the way that she did ... it’s great, it shows that we have really different pieces of puzzle that fit together.”
Whether or not Herbert Harrigan remains in the starting five come the NCAA tournament remains to be seen, but for one weekend at least, the lineup jumpstarted the Gamecocks out of a rut.