While most of college basketball kicked off the season earlier this week, South Carolina’s women’s team waited.
That wait will end Sunday, and it will do so in meaningful fashion, as Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks open their schedule against a unique opponent.
Alabama State, a small school in Montgomery, Ala., is coached on the men’s side by Lewis Jackson and on the women’s side by Freda Freeman-Jackson — one of the only husband-wife duos to coach Division I basketball. And their daughter, Bianca Jackson, is a sophomore guard for South Carolina.
Jackson began her college career last season by going against her mother and Alabama State at Colonial Life Arena, playing 28 minutes and scoring eight points as the Gamecocks routed the Hornets, 99-31. Now, she’ll start her second year of college ball in her home town.
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“I think it’s an incredible story that’s part of women’s basketball that probably hasn’t been talked about enough, to have a parent as the men’s and women’s basketball coaches at the DI level, to play at this level, to open up your career last year and have your mom on the opposing sideline, and then to open up at home on homecoming,” Staley said. “It should be a pretty good crowd. It’s exciting for Bianca and both her parents.”
After growing up around the coaches and players at Alabama State, Jackson said there has been a healthy amount of trash talking heading into Sunday’s game, although USC is expected to win comfortably. But she said it will still be nice to have family and friends in the stands, and they will see each other after the game, having taken care of business.
For Jackson, the difference between last year’s opener and this one is stark. In between, she was forced into the starting lineup for South Carolina by a rash of injuries, playing the third-most minutes on the team.
“I feel like I’ve changed a lot. I was kinda nervous (last year), first-game jitters, and then playing against my mom’s team made it a little bit more nerve-wracking,” Jackson said. “But I feel like I’ve grown a lot. Not as nervous anymore, I’ve feel like I’ve matured a bit playing through last season.”
Staley has seen that growth, too — mostly in how often she has had to enlist Jackson’s mother for help.
“I haven’t talked to coach Jackson (as much). Last year I talked to her a lot more, but Bianca seems to have the hang of things. When she gets out of hand, that’s usually when I send a text message to say, ‘She’s doing this, she’s doing that.’ But she’s got the whole college balancing act down,” Staley said.
Of the 13 players on the Gamecocks’ roster, seven have spent more time in college than Jackson, but her experience in the past year has still given her veteran status on a team looking to integrate several pieces that were not around or available last season.
“We have a lot of new people. Obviously I’m still a sophomore and we have a lot of older people to help lead, but I feel like I am somewhat of a veteran because I had a lot of game experience,” Jackson said.
For a brief moment in the preseason, Staley said she worried that Jackson might slip into a sophomore slump after earning SEC All-Freshman honors. Her performance in practice simply wasn’t that of an experienced veteran.
“Since then, she’s been shooting the ball well, she’s been recognizing things out there on the floor, she’s been a staple on both sides of the ball,” Staley said. “Obviously you want to see players progress that way, and she certainly has benefited from playing a whole lot last year to being one the players that is one of the most experienced ones because of that.”
Who: No. 10/11 South Carolina (0-0) vs. Alabama State (0-1)
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12
Where: Dunn-Oliver Acadome, Montgomery, Alabama
Watch: No TV but the game is streaming online at BamaStateSports.com
Radio: 107.5 FM in Columbia, South Carolina
Injury report: South Carolina will be without senior forward Alexis Jennings, who is still recovering from various “ailments” suffered in the preseason, coach Dawn Staley said. She is expected to return for the Gamecocks’ game Thursday against Clemson. Senior guards Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Nelly Perry are expected to play after missing the team’s exhibition last Friday.
Alabama State player to watch: Senior center Tatyana Calhoun was a preseason all-conference selection and could exploit South Carolina’s lack of size without Jennings, though she may also struggle to keep up with the Gamecocks’ pace.
Stat to watch: Despite losing to Kentucky in its opener 87-35, Alabama State did actually keep the rebounding battle close, at 43-35 in favor of the Wildcats. South Carolina senior guard Donyiah Cliney has said rebounding will be the biggest challenge the Gamecocks face this season.