David Cloninger

USC’s Coates shines in international debut

South Carolina center Alaina Coates is having an outstanding first international tournament.
South Carolina center Alaina Coates is having an outstanding first international tournament. tglantz@thestate.com

Dawn Staley is in Russia, a continent and an ocean away, yet must be grinning ear to ear.

This is the Alaina Coates she’s going to need next year and in 2016-17 if South Carolina is going to prove last year’s Final Four triumph wasn’t some flash in the pan.

Coates, a starter in every Team USA women’s basketball game in the Pan American Games, is averaging 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. That’s not surprising – Coates is a double-double machine, and was expected to be putting up those numbers.

But she’s getting better and better each game, taking over for the Americans late in each contest. In Team USA’s 65-64 win over Cuba in the medal semifinals on Sunday, Coates hit two go-ahead buckets in the final 3:30 as the Americans stormed back from an 11-point halftime deficit. She was all set to be the hero, blocking a shot with 26.5 seconds to go, but a Moriah Jefferson turnover gave Cuba a fast-break layup. That turned into a Linnae Harper drive and foul, where she hit two free throws for the winning points.

It’s Coates’ first international experience and I was surprised she made the team. Not that she didn’t have the talent, but in her first two years at South Carolina, there were times where she’d disappear for stretches. I figured that surrounded by the world’s best players – including two-time National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart – she’d not do so well in tryouts.

But she made the team, rose into the starting lineup and is becoming a force. After not shooting in her first game, she began getting the ball. She’s scored 47 points in three games and led Team USA into Monday night’s gold-medal game.

Staley’s game times in Russia (she and A’ja Wilson are, as expected, blistering the competition while Coates is in Toronto) coincide with her being able to watch a lot of Coates’ games. That’s the aggression and constant presence Staley wants to see going into next year.

A non-starter for two years, Coates was the Gamecocks’ most talented post player, but Elem Ibiam in the starting lineup worked. She could find out how the opponent was going to play USC’s paint presence, maybe pick up an early foul, discover how tight the refs were calling the game. Then Coates would check in on the first sub and I wasn’t the only one who always thought, “Business ’bout to pick up.”

Ibiam ended her college career in the Final Four and naturally, I assumed Coates would step in as starting center. When Staley signed Virginia center Sarah Imovbioh for her final year of eligibility, I backtracked, thinking Imovbioh (even giving up two inches to Coates) would be at center and perhaps Coates would start at the 4, or Coates would keep coming off the bench.

Instead, the early plan is for Imovbioh to play 4 and Coates to start at 5. Staley told me that was Imovbioh’s idea. Some pressure on Coates to keep doing what she does for extended minutes, but the way she’s playing right now is answering an early call.

Long time from now until practice begins, and even longer before the season starts, then gets into gear. Staley’s obviously not shying from a challenge, knowing that the SEC only got better and still scheduling Ohio State to go along with Duke and UConn. She has Tiffany Mitchell (a no-show at Pan Am due to a high ankle sprain in practice), Imovbioh and several other pieces from a Final Four team. She also has the one piece that turned her program from good to elite – the big girl.