The Daily Gamecock

Gamecocks continue to rely on freshmen


Last season, the South Carolina women’s basketball team was a No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament, but bowed out after a loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. It seemed like the Gamecocks were so close to putting everything together, but were seemingly missing a piece to the puzzle.

That puzzle piece might be this year’s freshman class. Capped by the signing of Hopkins, South Carolina native A’ja Wilson,South Carolina brought in the second best 2014 recruiting class in the country, according to the espnW HoopGurlz Class Rankings and the Gamecocks’ youthful talent has helped Dawn Staley’s team reach the Final Four for the first time in program history. 

“We have enough experience on this team and just to mix in some of our youth, I think that helps us just because we are so deep,” South Carolina junior guard Tiffany Mitchell said.“I think last year, we didn’t have enough to get us over that Sweet 16 hump, and this year, I think we are so much deeper. That’s what helped us in these past few games.”

Wilson, who just recently earned third team All-America honors, has had the biggest role out of the five freshmen on this year’s team, but backup point guard Bianca Cuevas has also seen a lot of playing time.

Although neither Wilson nor Cuevas start, both have been factors in South Carolina’s consistent success.

Despite only playing 19.7 minutes per game, Wilson is second on South Carolina in scoring with 12.9 points per game, while also grabbing 6.5 rebounds per contest. Meanwhile, Cuevas has served as junior Khadijah Sessions’ main backup at the point this season and averages 5.7 points per game. 

Wilson’s raw athleticism, paired with her ability to finish near the basket, make her a tough matchup for most defenders, while Cuevas’ speed and ball-handling skills give her the ability to dribble the length of the court before the blink of an eye.

Heading into the season, big expectations were placed upon this year’s South Carolina team, and a lot of that had to do with the talented players that were coming in to join an already-skilled team.

“The one thing that I always talk to the freshmen about is the expectations that we have coming into this season and how so much of it does rest on their shoulders, honestly,” South Carolina senior forward Aleighsa Welch said back in October before the season started.

Welch’s prediction that the Gamecocks would rely on young players like Wilson and Cuevas has become true. Most recently, it was Cuevas who had her most important performance of the season in South Carolina’s win over Florida State in the Elite Eight.

The Gamecocks struggled to find a rhythm on offense early on and were being outplayed by the Seminoles, but Cuevas changed all that.

Her fast-paced style of play helped South Carolina cut a considerable deficit down to just three-points came halftime thanks to her nine-point performance in the first half.

“I think she’s at a point where she’s understanding the process a little bit better,” Staley said of Cuevas. “She’s aware of her surroundings and what she needs to work on to improve.”

Likewise, Wilson has had several key performances for South Carolina this season, most notably in the Gamecocks’ last-second win at Duke earlier this season.

Overall, Staley is very pleased with the way Wilson and Cuevas have progressed over the course of the year, even though they don’t get as much playing time as they might at other schools due to South Carolina’s depth.

“I think they’ve progressed nicely,” Staley said. “And I often think about, if we just had to throw them in the fire, how much of that progression would have put them in a better position of having more opportunities to play, unfortunately. But fortunately, we have some older players that have been around the block that are teaching them.”