Dawn Staley’s group of seniors all have a slightly different memory of how they first met each other.
Some have memories of meeting at high school all-star games. Others remember just bumping into each other on move-in day.
Regardless of how they met — forward Aliyah Boston, guard Zia Cooke, guard Brea Beal, forward Laeticia Amihere and guard Olivia Thompson — are all now coming to terms with the fact that they have one year of college basketball left.
Thompson said it’s hit each of the seniors at different times and in different ways. Cooke even joked recently the two had a moment where some tears were shed about growing up.
“It's very bittersweet for me, I know that I'm gonna miss this a lot,” Thompson said. “This is a very special group. This is a very special class and when we came in here, we had very high expectations and we've really met those expectations. But we just want to keep going. We want to make this year our best year.”
Describing the expectations as “high” is accurate.
Boston, Cooke, Beal and Amihere were all ranked in the top-11 of the 2019 recruiting class, and Thompson was the S.C. 5A Player of the Year that same year.
The group was tasked with playing early and often while attempting to ride the positive momentum the program had generated in 2017 after South Carolina won its first title. The big three of Boston, Cooke and Beal has been a mainstay in the starting rotation since their freshman year. Boston and Cooke have started each game they've played in for the Gamecocks, while Beal has started in all but one.
Beal said on the court she’s seen a tremendous amount of growth in the mental aspect of the game from herself, Cooke and Boston during their time in Columbia.
“I think it's crazy to see how much we've grown mentally and especially like IQ-wise,” Beal said. “We understand the game of basketball so much, especially playing under Dawn Staley. She’s taught us so much.”
During their first three years at South Carolina that class helped the Gamecocks compile 95 wins, win the SEC twice and set the program up to defend the national title it won last year.
Those last three years have flown by for Boston. She said she got chills thinking about how this is the group's final year together.
“I mean, you come in and like for me, it's different because I came in (when) I was 17 years old — like not even legal age,” Boston said. “Now I'm going to be 21 and I'm graduating college. Like it is crazy how fast life goes in a blink of an eye ... now we're on our final season together. It's like this, this is crazy.”
Cooke said the realization she’s a senior hits her the most when she’s off the court and takes a step back to realize just how much the group has progressed.
“Some of us are in relationships now, we're making money now, we got our own cars, it's just like we're doing grown-woman things,” Cooke said. “So watching us all do that is what gets me the most — sometimes even gets me emotional.”
Off the court, the five women forged a strong bond during their time at South Carolina, which Cooke said it’s been essential to the team's success on the court. She joked that recently Staley said she didn’t realize the group was so close to one another, despite essentially being the mother of their sisterhood.
“Outside of here we hang together like — we’re the freshies. That's what we call ourselves and that's a name that won't change," Cooke said. "(Staley) was just like, ‘Wow, I didn't know you guys are that close.’ Like yes, serious, like that's the reason why we clicked so well on the court because off the court we're sisters.”
That shared bond helped them rely on each other during their initial transition from high school to college and grow as young women, Boston said.
“Coming in freshman year with a group of girls I just think it makes it so much easier, because you're not going through it alone,” Boston said. “You know at least four other people guaranteed are thinking exactly what you're thinking.”
Boston said back then the group would have “freshie talks” — something they still do now.
“We just talked about anything that's like on our mind, related (to) on and off the court, which I think has helped us,” Boston said. “We really shared some deep things, like honestly, and I think that helped especially on the court and off the court.”
With the 2022-2023 campaign now underway, Thompson said she can look back and see ways each member of the senior class has grown but stayed true to themselves along the way.
“I think we've all just, as individuals, grown maturity-wise and just basketball-wise, of course, also,” Thompson said. “It's really cool to see how we've changed but still stay the same. We still have the same goals, but we just have a different level of focus.”