It’s tradition for South Carolina women’s basketball to mark the beginning of preseason practices by leaving social media for the season.
When freshman Zia Cooke does so for the first time this fall, she’ll be leaving behind a lot of followers — more than 145,000 on Instagram. That’s more than three times coach Dawn Staley, far more than any of her teammates and even more than Gamecock legend and WNBA star A’ja Wilson.
It all started with a highlight video of Cooke putting up 43 points in a high school game, slicing and dicing defenders and at one point sending an opponent stumbling with a pullback, pointing at her and finally driving by to finish a layup. The video went viral, with Dwyane Wade, C.J. McCollum and Chance The Rapper all posting about it on Twitter. Overnight, Cooke’s online profile exploded.
“There’s been people from Africa, Mexico, China, it’s people from everywhere DMing every day, people liking my pictures every day and getting 100 plus followers every day. It’s crazy,” Cooke said.
And as anyone who watched that highlight video could see (292,000 views and counting), Cooke brings a swagger and enthusiasm to her game that bodes well for her future at Colonial Life Arena, where Gamecock fans have led the nation in attendance for five consecutive years.
“Zia Cooke is gonna probably want to entertain all 14,000 (fans) every time down the floor, and the crowd’s gonna love her and what she brings to the table, because she plays with a lot of flair,” Staley told WACH FOX over the summer.
Indeed, Cooke says she thrives most in the spotlight, a spotlight that’s about to get a whole lot brighter.
“Honestly, I have my best games when there’s a lot of people at the game,” Cooke said. “That’s when I have my best games, and that’s just back at home, and that’s not ... anywhere near as many people that are going to be here. (Staley’s) right. I’m gonna love the crowds, I love to see people into the games, and it just gets me hyped.”
How much time she’ll get to spend in that spotlight as a freshman is unclear — Cooke’s the No. 1 point guard in her class, but Staley and the Gamecocks already have a senior All-SEC point guard in Tyasha Harris and a reigning SEC All-Freshman point guard in Destanni Henderson, herself the No. 1-ranked point guard in her class out of high school.
With that in mind, Cooke made it clear she knows she might have to adapt or change to get playing time.
“I just want to be on the floor floor, so however I got to be on the floor, that’s what I’m gonna do. Ty is definitely going to be the point guard this year. I have no problem with that. I have no problem going to the 2 or just being wherever the team needs me,” Cooke said.
In the future, however, Cooke still sees herself as a point guard. That’s a large reason why she committed to South Carolina in the first place; to learn from Staley, one of the game’s all-time best lead guards. Harris and Henderson have also been counseling her through early summer practices, and Instagram fame or no, she’s keenly aware of her room to grow.
“I’m good now, but I really want to be great, so I know coach is gonna get me to that level,” Cooke said. “So right now, I’m a freshman, so I’m learning right now. I’m not really here to say I’m big-time or anything because I still got to stay humble because I want to know how far I can go. I don’t really know yet.”