Players from the No. 1 women’s college basketball recruiting class for the 2019-2020 season will soon step away from the spotlight and pass the mantle to the next generation of players.
The class that calls themselves the “Freshies” boasts an impressive resume, losing only one home game in their four years at Colonial Life Arena while maintaining a 130-7 overall record.
The outgoing senior class, which includes forwards Aliyah Boston and Laeticia Amihere along with guards Olivia Thompson, Brea Beal and Zia Cooke, has left behind a legacy that will influence the program for years to come, according to head coach Dawn Staley.
"They came in with a certain following and with a lot of publicity, and they just wanted to be understudies to what was already here," Staley said. "They took on that role and have taken our program to another level from a cultural standpoint."
Staley and the team, however, said there will be a considerable gap to fill in the absence of their powerful senior leadership and experience for upcoming seasons. South Carolina's new, promising group of young players — including sophomore forward Sania Feagin, freshman forward Ashlyn Watkins and redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson — are ready to continue the legacy of the celebrated “Freshies."
“The younger players really understand the high standard, and play, and practice, and community service and just treating everyone with respect," Staley said. "They really have an understanding of how you have to approach that every single day.”
Feagin saw opportunities for playing time this season as a means to improve her dominance and defensive skills, which Staley deemed the “hardest learning curve” for her.
Staley said Feagin's commitment to the game has increased since her first year with the Gamecocks. She said Feagin has come to understand that domination is a process that she must go through, just as Boston did, to get to the top of the game.
Watkins saw an average of almost 11 minutes a game this season, averaging 4.9 points. Playing in 32 games in just her first year, she stands out as another upcoming star for the Gamecocks.
"I feel like I have proven myself to play more, and I know that we have a lot of great people on our team and that I am not going to get as many minutes as I want to as a freshman," Watkins said. "But I know that I have to work hard for the minutes that I want."
Many of the younger players come in with a willingness to sit back and learn from their veterans, but according to Feagin, they are ready to showcase their talents when the time comes.
“Coach always says, 'No matter what, when your number is called, be ready to go out there and do what you know how to do,'” Feagin said. “I just felt like I went out there and (did) what I know how to do”.
Staley said their efforts in practice have been one of the biggest areas of growth for the younger class from day one of the season.
“They are ready. If we needed them to substitute in, I feel very comfortable," Staley said. "It would be different but equally as effective."
One of those opportunities to play significant minutes came in the first round of the 2023 NCAA tournament.
Players such as Feagin, Watkins and Johnson all made an impact on the game. Johnson, in particular, showcased the depth of the Gamecocks' offense, tying her career-high seven assists with four coming in the second half of the game against Norfolk State.
“I just tried to get them in the game with some of our older players just to give them some experience,” Staley said. “I would like for some of our young post players to really get some experience playing in big games and having to be counted on.”
The "Freshies" have already established themselves as one of the most impressive recruiting classes in the history of the sport, and their legacy will impact the program and the players for years to come.
“This entire class deserves to be lifted up,” Staley said. “They are deserving of something — of us really celebrating them and what they’ve meant to our program, to our university, to the city of Columbia and the state of South Carolina.”