David Cloninger

Cloninger: Sessions comes through when needed

Khadijah Sessions blocks an in-bounds pass in the final seconds.
Khadijah Sessions blocks an in-bounds pass in the final seconds. tglantz@thestate.com

It’s the advantage and curse of being around a team for so long. You’re always comparing present players to past.

I never thought I’d see a more prototypical Dawn Staley guard than La’Keisha Sutton. She was the backbone of those first four Staley teams, the ones who rose from getting their skulls bashed in every night to 25 wins and the NCAA tournament as seniors.

Sutton was Staley. Tough. Talented. Able to find the instruction and love behind sometimes-harsh directives during practice and games. That the two were from the same area (Philly and Trenton) and similar upbringings (it wasn’t the suburbs) only fueled the comparison. Staley was harder on her guards than any other – like Michael Jordan as an executive, it’s always a case of “Well, I could do it, why can’t you?” – and while Sutton battled two years’ worth of thoughts to pack her bags and go back home, she stuck it out and became one of the program’s most beloved stars.

When Staley signed Khadijah Sessions, I saw it as an extension of the in-state pipeline but also an intriguing storyline. Sessions was a pure scorer in her prep days and while the Gamecocks surely wouldn’t turn that down, they had other options. A lot of other options.

Sessions needed to direct more than shoot, pass more than drive. I thought it would wind up being a case of Sessions struggling to learn and spending long periods on the bench. It became me thinking she would never be a La’Keisha, because she simply couldn’t handle being the director instead of the shooter.

It hit me Sunday. I’ve been wrong. Way wrong.

Sessions is exactly like Sutton – the prototypical Staley guard. She knows what needs to be done and does it. If that’s pass the ball in a big situation, sure. If that’s take matters into her own hands and drive the lane for a layup, sure.

If that’s make a free throw to win after missing the first, sure.

I’ve seen her do it many times before – head down, bent nearly double, flashing through the lane for a left-side layup. Then there’s that stone-faced stare afterward, looking at the opponent or crowd as if to say, “Told ya I got this.” Think of the Florida State game last year.

I never really appreciated it until Sunday. Sessions was the one who brought the Gamecocks back, getting those steals, finishing those fast breaks and winning the game. That she did it on a bruised thigh, fighting pain the whole time, was more testament to exactly who she is. While she had a massive screwup to lose a halftime lead, she more than made up for it.

Maybe that’s why she barely comes out of the game except for injury or foul trouble.

Why would Staley bench herself?

BEST OF BLAIR: I love turning on the tape recorder and just letting Gary Blair talk. That guy is hysterical. Not only does he know every X and O of basketball, but he’s so off-putting with his words that he may have missed his calling as a writer (he was a journalism major). I was always prepared for a Steve Spurrier special because you could tell when he was winding up for one of his one-liners. Blair just says what he’s thinking and it’s usually really funny and really true.

The highlights:

(On the game-tying layup, labeled “miraculous” by yours truly)

“That wasn’t no miracle damn pass. That was a set play.”

(On the last-minute confusion)

“But when you got 15,000 or whatever you had had here and change, my kids couldn’t hear me. We weren’t disciplined enough to have the right kid throw it in again.”

(On the Aggies’ great outside shooters)

“I think that’s a dying art in basketball, is kids that can take the ball to the elbow and shoot the mid-range.”

(On USC)

“Folks, they’re damn good. I’d like to see two sportswriters get in there and try to guard those two (A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates) down there. It’d be all you can handle in there because they are good.”

(On officiating)

“You had the best referees in the game. Well, two of them.”

(On guarding Wilson)

“Well, I had a 5-11 kid on her. That’s great coaching. We could help off and play HTM. That’s ‘Hope They Miss.’”

(On defense)

“Who’s out-rebounded South Carolina this year? Give my Munchkins credit.”

(On CLA)

“I’m so proud of the atmosphere that South Carolina puts on. Y’all know y’all even sell shrimp and grits up there, and chicken and waffles, and all that type of stuff? You figured it out, where there’s a whole bunch of teams in the SEC in basketball. They figured it out for football. They need to figure it out what you guys are doing here in basketball here. We all lived off of Tennessee for about 20 years. We’re not living off of Tennessee anymore. South Carolina has set the blueprint, what they’re doing, the creative stuff, and hopefully some of the rest of us will follow.”

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