After a year of challenges, Staley quite proud of her team
As some have noted, it’s a testament to the women’s basketball program Dawn Staley has built at South Carolina that the 2018-2019 season felt like a bit of a letdown.
Most teams would love a top-two finish in the SEC, a Sweet 16 berth and 23 wins. But for the Gamecocks, such results have become commonplace over the last half-decade.
So when USC lost to Baylor this past Saturday in the NCAA tournament, ending its season, it also meant that Carolina finished 2018-2019 with its lowest winning percentage in seven years. After a one-game appearance in the SEC tournament, it also marked the team’s shortest postseason appearance since 2011. And when the Associated Press announced its 15-member All-American teams Monday, the Gamecocks were not represented for the first time since 2012-2013.
That clash between expectations and success was readily apparent when Staley was asked in the immediate aftermath of the Baylor loss whether she would consider the past season a success.
“The competitor in me says no, but when you really have to look at what we were handed as far as who was on our roster, the inexperience that was on our roster playing at this level, the injuries that we had very early on, it took us a while to get to a place where we had good chemistry and people had a really good understanding of their roles,” Staley answered.
Inexperienced might seem like an odd way to describe a 13-player roster that had seven upperclassmen, but what really seemed to hold the Gamecocks back, especially early in the season, was their inexperience with each other.
Of those seven upperclassmen, senior Nelly Perry was a grad transfer new to the program, senior Bianca Cuevas-Moore was coming off a year-long knee injury and knocking off rust, and junior Te’a Cooper hadn’t played any competitive basketball in nearly two years. Even senior Alexis Jennings, a top returner from 2017-2018, had just one year of on-court experience at South Carolina after transferring from Kentucky.
As Staley noted after the Gamecocks’ second-round win over Florida State, USC had talent from the get-go. Finding a way to mesh that talent into a cohesive whole was the problem.
“Earlier on, they didn’t know, they were just people that were trying to make an impact doing it themselves,” Staley said. She also seemed to be searching — 11 different players started at least one game and averaged more than 10 minutes per game, while only one, junior guard Tyasha Harris, averaged more than 30 minutes. That’s the first time Staley has had such a rotation since her first season at USC.
Four different Gamecocks wound up averaging more than 10 points per game, but none topped 12 points per contest, also something that’s only happened once before in Staley’s 11-year tenure. An overabundance of depth and lack of a clear-cut top option meant USC’s opponents couldn’t home in on just one player, but it also sometimes left Staley searching for someone to step up in crunch time.
Towards the end of the year, Staley said, the Gamecocks began to figure things out, and by the end, she felt they had reached their ceiling.
“I think we achieved the potential of this team. I don’t think we lacked the potential. I thought getting to the second weekend of this tournament would be, you know, a real goal for us. I didn’t say that out loud, obviously, but I thought it was a real goal, attainable goal, to reach for,” Staley said.
After plenty of talk in the preseason about running and gunning on offense, taking more 3s than typical, South Carolina did take make more 3-pointers than it ever has in the Dawn Staley era, and the team’s 3-point rate, or percentage of shots taken from beyond the arc, was its second highest in the past decade. But South Carolina still ranked outside the top 115 nationally in 3-point rate, 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made and attempted.
USC’s efficiency on offense also dipped to 104 points per 100 possessions, its lowest mark in six years, and its defensive rating of 92.2 points allowed per 100 possessions was its highest in that time frame. Carolina also had just a 3-9 record against ranked teams, its first losing mark since 2012-2013.
Simply put, the Gamecocks were in a “rebuilding” year, waiting on the influx of talent that the No. 1-ranked 2019 recruiting class will bring and a step behind the seven or so elite programs with legitimate national title aspirations.