The South Carolina women’s basketball team’s quest for back-to-back NCAA championships began Nov. 7 when the team hosted East Tennessee State.
The Gamecocks return four starters from its 2022 national champion team, including the reigning national player of the year, senior forward Aliyah Boston. Boston earned numerous awards and accolades last season and is hoping to repeat that success this year.
“That was really incredible for me, and I’m just so thankful to God for it,” Boston said. “I think it’d be cool to do it again. Every single thing all again.”
All-SEC second-team guard Zia Cooke is also back for her senior year. Last season, Cooke averaged 11 points, two rebounds and two assists per game. While Cook does have her sights set on a national title, she said she is taking this season one game at a time.
“For me, I like to just worry about what’s in front of me at the moment," Cooke said. "The national championship is months from now, literally, like there’s no point in even thinking about it. I just want to focus on each and every team that steps before that, we got an SEC championship we lost last year, we got to come back and win that.”
The team added a few new players in the offseason, including two freshmen from the class of 2022. Five-star guards Talaysia Cooper and Ashlyn Watkins are both South Carolina natives and 2022 McDonalds All-Americans.
“Ashlyn is an incredible athlete. She’s super smart, like she doesn’t move like a freshman," head coach Dawn Staley said. "I just think the sky is the limit for her."
Staley said Cooper has been up and down so far, but she is "super talented" and hopes she will find a way to contribute this year.
"Talaysia is just in a different position. Sometimes we're playing her at the point, that’s hard as a freshman," Staley said. "Sometimes we got (her) on the wing so we’re giving her a lot of responsibility."
South Carolina also brought in transfer graduate student guard Kierra Fletcher. Fletcher previously played at Georgia Tech where she averaged 13 points, six rebounds and four assists last season.
Redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson will make her return this season after missing nearly all of last year due to injury. In the team’s second game last year, Johnson tore her ACL and missed the remainder of the season.
One question South Carolina faces before the season tips off is who will take the starting point guard role.
Last season, current Indiana Fever point guard Destanni Henderson held the lead guard duty. Her absence has created a hole the team is still figuring out how to fill.
“It’s hard to gauge where we are because we don’t have a full-time point guard,” Staley said. “Zia plays it, but the strength at what she does has been always on that two-guard slot.”
Despite these concerns, Staley is pleased with the steps multiple players took over the offseason.
“I see everybody has gotten better,” Staley said. “We asked them to come back in better shape — with more mental strength, with more physical strength — and they’ve done that. So now it’s on us to figure out what combinations we can play to play all of them.”
South Carolina's returning talent, plus its new players, make the team the overwhelming favorite to win it all entering the season.
The Gamecocks were unanimously ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll, becoming the third team to ever be ranked preseason No. 1 three straight years. Caesars Sportsbook has the Gamecocks’ odds of going back to back at +160 with Stanford coming in second among national title favorites at +400.
Even with the odds in their favor, Staley acknowledged the team can’t start slow and still has a ways to go health-wise.
The team faces a tough schedule that will test it early in the season. Four of the team’s first five games are on the road, including visits to No. 17 Maryland in the second game of the season and No. 2 Stanford in game four. In total, the Gamecocks are facing six preseason top-25 teams this year.
South Carolina will also look to recapture the SEC title, which it fell short of securing last year. Both of the team’s only two losses last season came in SEC play.
“This league prepares you to win national championships,” Staley said. “We know that every time we step on the floor, any of us can lose to any of us, so it just feels like the norm in SEC play.”
While discussions about the potential for the Gamecocks to be the next women's basketball dynasty increase, Staley said the team is not a dynasty yet and sustained success with multiple championships is key.
“To be a dynasty, I do think you got to have a little back-to-back championship in you. I do think you have to have sustained success,” Staley said. “Our program is in a good place where we’re able to attract some of the best talent in the country, and it starts there.”
Editor's note: Michael Sauls contributed to the reporting of this article