Sports

Proud high school coaches following journey of USC women’s basketball stars

gmelendez@thestate.com

Not too long ago, coaches Anne Long and John O’Cain were helping guide two of the nation’s best women’s basketball players in high school. Sunday, the coaches will be among their former players’ biggest fans as the Gamecocks face Notre Dame in the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Last year, O’Cain was celebrating with A’ja Wilson after Heathwood Hall won the SCISA Class 3A state title. The coach who watched Wilson grow up through six basketball seasons said he will be honored to know he has been part of the freshman’s journey.

“It feels good to know that I had a little bit of a hand in where she is now, but it’s mostly A’ja Wilson, she wouldn’t be where she is now if she didn’t have the dedication she has,” said O’Cain, who will be watching the games in Tampa on television.

It has been three years since Long coached junior guard Asia Dozier at Spring Valley. But on Sunday night, Long will be in Tampa to cheer on Dozier and the Gamecocks.

Long annually attends the Final Four as a representative for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, chaperoning the All-American players. This year, she will be wearing her Gamecocks gear as she escorts her charges.

Sophomore Alaina Coates’ high school coach at Dutch Fork, Marilyn Norris, will not be attending the game because of a death in the family, but said she had a great time following the Gamecocks’ success this season.

Freshman Kaydra Duckett’s high school coach has spent time encouraging her former star.

“I can imagine it’s been difficult for her because she’s such a competitor,” coach Teresa Jones said. “She wants to be out there helping her team.

“But she really is living the dream. She is a part of a team that is making a run for a national title, and no one can take that away,” Jones said.

Duckett has averaged about three minutes per game this season, and on Sunday, Jones said, “We’ll be cheering extra hard when see that (No. 3) out on the court.”

The high school coaches have been keeping in touch and keeping tabs.

“I still send her texts every now and then, and tell her the same things I’d tell her when she was my player. Never settle. Don’t stop trying to get better,” O’Cain said of Wilson.

O’Cain, a Clemson fan, became a Gamecocks women’s basketball fan the day Wilson committed to the program, and he attended about half of the team’s home games. Long has been attending the games for a few years, but this season, she has been even more dedicated.

“I went ahead and bought season tickets to support them,” Long said. “They got so big, I wanted to be able to get in there and have a good seat, not be way up top.”

“I try to keep in touch with all of my former players when they go on to college. They’ll always be my girls and I feel like once a coach, always a coach,” Long said.

Long said she and Dozier exchanged textsafter Dozier’s key performance – hitting four crucial free throws in the final 20 seconds – in the Gamecocks’ 80-74 win against Florida State in the Elite 8.

It is difficult for the coaches, who prided themselves on helping their players find success in high school, to be fans with high hopes and no control.

“I prefer to be her coach,” O’Cain said. “It was definitely a little easier when I was her coach and I could tell her change this, adjust that.”

Long said, “I’m a fan, but when I’m in the stands, I feel like a parent up there. I take it a little more personally, maybe, than some of the other fans.”

No matter how they label themselves, the coaches are part of the Gamecock women’s basketball family now. And no matter where they are on Sunday, they will be rooting for a Gamecocks victory.

Reach Nelson at (803) 771-8419

WOMEN’S FINAL FOUR

Sunday’s Semifinals: USC vs. Notre Dame, 6:30 p.m.; Maryland vs. UConn, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

TV: ESPN

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