USC Women's Basketball

The kids are all right: Gamecock newcomers come up big in easy exhibition win

The future is here for South Carolina women’s basketball, and it’s off to a mostly smooth start, as the Gamecocks rolled past North Georgia in their exhibition Friday night, 112-48.

All four of of the five-star freshmen Dawn Staley brought to USC scored in double figures on the evening, and they helped fuel an energetic defensive attack that forced 25 turnovers against their Division II opponent.

Not that Staley didn’t see room for improvement, especially on defense.

“I like our potential. I like the fact that we are connected, but when there are multiple movements happening at the same time, we’re not good in that type of scenario. You look at the stat sheet, yes, we run around. I thought we were the superior team so we did that part of it like we’re supposed to,” Staley said of the defense.

“But when you look at it as a coach, you’re looking at those nuances that will come up against the opponents that we’re gonna face in our conference, the nonconference, opponents on the road. Those type of things, you have to be a little more sharp with in order for you to win basketball games, because that’s the difference maker.”

Two newcomers, guard Zia Cooke and forward Aliyah Boston, were included in the starting lineup, and quickly made an impact, accounting for six of the Gamecocks’ first 11 points. Cooke wound up leading the team with 18 points.

“I thought I was going to be nervous, but I actually felt comfortable. In the beginning, I was just very excited, I didn’t have any nerves,” Cooke said of her first collegiate game.

Meanwhile, veteran Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, coming off an offseason in which she briefly entered the transfer portal, came out on a mission, recording seven points, six rebounds and two assists in the first quarter alone. She finished the game with 11 points and eight rebounds, sitting most of the second half.

North Georgia didn’t score for the game’s first five minutes and often looked flustered as the Gamecocks attacked with a variety of defensive looks, including some presses that led to 30 fast-break points. And while Staley wants to see more moving forward, the freshmen contributed a great deal on that side of the ball — Boston had five blocks and two steals, Cooke had two early steals and guard Brea Beal had a pair of each.

Meanwhile, USC’s fourth top-rated freshman, forward Laeticia Amihere, was on a minutes limit and in a knee brace after coming back from injury. But she was efficient in her time on the floor, collecting 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting and six rebounds.

Junior guard LeLe Grissett wound up with 16 points, all in the second half, to finish second on the team. She also pulled down five rebounds and swiped four steals to go with two blocks.

“I think Lele is just a really good work in progress. This is a great game for her to just build on. I thought she made some great decisions out there on the floor like when to post up. The offensive rebounding is her thing,” Staley said. “But defensively, I just think she moved like a guard out there, and that’s the thing that’s probably come the hardest for her, to be able to lock in and defend on the perimeter. But I thought she did extremely well tonight.”

As the bigger, stronger team, South Carolina crushed North Georgia down low, scoring 70 points in the paint and adding 24 more on free throws that mostly came as the Nighthawks fouled the Gamecocks in the post. That led to a 55.8% shooting percentage for USC, as the team made 24 of 28 layups.

“We got post play. We got guards that are explosive, we got post players that will probably shoot well in the upper 50s (percent) from the floor,” Staley said. “We got to find a great balance, but we have to also know that we have those bigs in the back of our pockets and we can score in the paint at will. But it’s always been a focus of mine to get the ball inside and let’s play off the post play.”

Boston, one of those post players Staley was talking about, wound up with 11 points and eight rebounds, including five offensive boards.

“My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball, and I just really worked hard on finishing and getting to the free throw line,” Boston said.

NEXT

Who: No. 8 South Carolina vs. Alabama State

When: Tuesday, Nov. 5

Where: Colonial Life Arena

Watch: Streaming online on SEC Network Plus via WatchESPN

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Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.
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