The South Carolina women’s basketball team completed its first official practice of the 2023-24 season, marking the start of a new era for the program.
Head coach Dawn Staley said the team is not focused on the success of the previous four years, led by former Gamecocks Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. Instead, Staley and the team see it as an opportunity to create its own success.
“The slate is wiped clean. This is all about this particular group,” Staley said. “We can't erase what took place for the last four years. So, but we can start anew and give this, this team its own identity.”
Staley said that even though this was the first official practice of the new season, the team has already been working out, and she’s noticed big signs of improvement so far.
“They're starting to figure some things out. Summer was a different story,” Staley said. “They're gelling a lot more. I think there's a lot to be desired. There's a lot of encouragement by what's taken place over the past couple of weeks.”
With seven departures from last season’s Final Four squad, many of the six returning and five new players will step into more significant roles. Staley said senior center Kamilla Cardoso is one of the players that will need to elevate their game.
Last season, Cardoso averaged 9.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in a bench role. This season she will be expected to fill the void on the inside that was vacated by Boston’s exit, according to Staley.
“Kamilla has to step in the role of being our dominant post on the inside, she's got to also, she's got to shoot from the outside as well,” Staley said. “We're working with her to embrace that role. She's very, very unselfish. And a lot of times, you know much like Aaliyah this past season, will pass out to people who shoot half her field goal percentage.”
Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts and redshirt sophomore guard Raven Johnson are also expected to be tasked with larger roles this season.
Kitts joined the program in the middle of last season and appeared in 18 games, averaging 6.9 minutes. Staley said she has noticed a change in Kitts since last season.
“She’s a much different player,” Staley said. “She makes good decisions. The offense flows when she's in the game. She's a worker. She's a worker on both sides of the ball, and she's tough. She doesn't back down from anybody, and she's no longer the timid Chloe.”
Johnson had a more significant role last season averaging 18.6 minutes a game and starting three contests. She said she is taking this season as a “revenge tour” for how the season ended.
“It's like an apology to myself from last year, because I know I could have been better, and we know we had high expectations too to win the national championship,” Johnson said. “It's a revenge tour, you know, to get back to that point and to win a national championship.”
Johnson said for the team to reach its goals both the new and returning players need to come together and step up.
“If I'm buying it, everybody gotta buy in,” Johnson said. “I’m gonna need help, Paopao, Kamilla, so I think it's a team thing, everybody. It doesn’t have to be one specific leader.”
Senior guard Te-Hina Paopao is an incoming transfer from Oregon. Last season with the Ducks, she started every game for the team and averaged 32.7 minutes per game.
Paopao said she thinks she will be an experienced facilitator who can knock down shots for South Carolina. Over the summer, she said she worked on expanding her game defensively.
“This whole summer has been about defense on my aspect because offense will come,” Paopao said. “We've been working really hard on that aspect, and it’s been great.”
The Gamecocks still have more than a month’s worth of practice until the regular season opener. Before that, South Carolina will play in an exhibition game at home against Rutgers on Oct. 22 in honor of former assistant coach Nikki McCray-Penson, who passed away earlier this year.
The regular season is set to begin on Nov. 6 when the Gamecocks take on Notre Dame in the Aflac Oui-Play game in Paris, France.
“I started screaming because our first game is in Paris,” Johnson said. “We used to ask coach last year, like why we didn't take a foreign trip, and this summer I saw a lot of teams took a lot of foreign trips, and we didn't take a foreign trip. So, Paris just to play our first game means a lot, and I'm so ready to go to Paris.”
The game starts at 1 p.m. EST and will be televised on ESPN.