USC Women's Basketball

Draining 3s and bringing energy: This incoming Gamecock knows her role

In the star-studded, internet-famous South Carolina women’s basketball recruiting class of 2019, Olivia Thompson is usually the one listed last.

Of the five high school seniors who make up the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, Thompson, a Lexington native, is the only one without five stars next to her name, the only one not ranked in the top 15 by ESPN and the only one who will come to USC without a scholarship as a preferred walk-on.

But in one key respect, Thompson’s name comes up first in the group — she was the earliest to announce she would be joining the Gamecocks, back in August. For roughly three months, she remained the only player coach Dawn Staley had in the class of 2019.

Then came November and one of the greatest recruiting stretches in the history of women’s college basketball. In the span of two weeks, four of the nation’s best players announced their commitments to Carolina, rocketing USC up the recruiting rankings and securing the group’s place at the top.

For Thompson, it was all an unexpected bonus.

“It was so cool. I didn’t know that I was going to be a part of something like this. I just chose USC because of the feel that I got from the coaches, the players, it’s my home. That’s why I chose USC, and just to see all these amazing athletes and players come into the program, it just makes this experience even better,” Thompson told The State.

It almost never happened — back in August, Thompson was all set to sign with a Division II school, Lenoir-Rhyne, on a full scholarship. She was out of town when she received a text from her mother, saying Dawn Staley had called.

Thompson had attended a camp at South Carolina and made an impression on Staley with her work ethic and her 3-point shooting ability, the coach later told ESPN. But at the time, Thompson said, the two hadn’t spoken much, and while some members of the coaching staff had seen her in AAU play, she didn’t realize the Gamecocks were at all interested.

Lexington senior guard Olivia Thompson attempts a shot against Irmo on Dec. 16, 2018, in Irmo, S.C. Thompson will be playing next year for Dawn Staley at the University of South Carolina. Sean Rayford

“It was a shock. I was surprised, but I was also very excited. It was just an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I thought about it for roughly a day, and I just thought, it’s all about the experience. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and I don’t feel like I’m regretting anything. I was turning down a full scholarship, but I just thought it was all about the experience, and I couldn’t pass that up,” Thompson said.

Embracing the experience as South Carolina’s first walk-on player since India Farmer means Thompson is clear-eyed about why Staley wanted her and what her role will be — to rain down 3-pointers. As a junior, Thompson led the state with 105 makes from beyond the arc, hitting them at a 38 percent clip. In eight games this year, she’s shooting 40 percent from 3, with 29 made already.

“Mainly the reason (Staley) recruited me was because of my shooting, and I’m hoping I can just perfect that and use that as my role,” Thompson said. “That’s my plan (to be a 3-point specialist).”

Thompson’s coach at Lexington, Molly Goodrich, has seen her point guard’s game grow over the past three years, to the point where she can now score in a multitude of ways on the high school level.

“She’s a very good 3-point shooter. I don’t know if it’s NBA range, but she can hit them pretty deep,” Goodrich said. “My thing is, if she’s open, look to score. But if her shot’s not on ... she’s not just a 3-point shooter. She’s inside-outside, she looks to attack the basket.”

On the collegiate level, Thompson won’t likely be asked to drive the lane much. But she has already shown in high school that she doesn’t need the ball in her hands very long to make something happen on the offensive end.

“Athletic combo-guard brings smooth stroke with range to the arc; executes in half-court game, knocks down the jumper consistently; attacks in uptempo,” ESPN’s Dan Olson wrote in his scouting report of Thompson, ranking her as a three-star prospect and the 76th-best point guard in the class.

The other reason Staley told ESPN she chose to offer Thompson a spot was her intensity and passion. Thompson saw those remarks, and she’s determined to prove Staley right.

“She said she liked that I was a fighter. I’m passionate about the game, and I’m very competitive, so I just love to win and I love to compete,” Thompson said.

According to Goodrich, South Carolina is also getting an agreeable, coachable player who will help the team’s morale and chemistry with her kind and giving personality.

“She’s the kind of student who not only is in Project UNIFY to work with special needs kids, but after our games, the kids come and watch her, and she’ll be the one to drive them home. She’s very caring,” Goodrich said.

And of course, Thompson will come to Carolina with the built-in fanbase that comes from being an in-state player.

“It’s an amazing feeling to represent my state and even my city. It feels great. The community and all of Gamecock nation has been really supportive and they’ve been excited, just as much as I have,” Thompson said.