The South Carolina women’s basketball team will lean on a mix of veteran leadership and young talent in the 2023-24 season as it looks to build a new legacy with its refreshed core.
Head coach Dawn Staley said the "slate is wiped clean" for the Gamecocks' 2023-2024 team after the departure of one of the most decorated women’s basketball recruiting classes, the Freshies, which featured 2019 recruits Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson.
This year, South Carolina will look to its remaining veterans to lead the new-look team. Staley said they cannot ignore the success of the last four years, but this team must start anew and create a new identity for itself.
“It's not a rebuild for us because we are very talented. We've got talent on our team,” Staley said. “We just lack a little bit of game day experience.”
Senior center Kamilla Cardoso, junior guard Bree Hall and redshirt sophomore guard Raven Johnson are among the veterans expected to step into leadership roles and guide the younger players.
Cardoso, the 2023 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year, is developing a more energetic and communicative role as she steps up into a leading role for the Gamecocks, according to Staley.
“I think she's playing with a zest of wanting to dominate,” Staley said. “That's what we want. We want you to understand that domination is a process that everybody has to go through it if that’s what they want.”
Staley said Hall has been trying to be more consistent and navigate the load of being a team leader. Last season, Hall appeared in 35 total games off the bench for the Gamecocks — including 15 SEC matchups and eight postseason outings — and scored at least 10 points in four of them.
Johnson had a similar role to Hall during the 2022-23 campaign, appearing in 36 games and starting on three occasions. In her 674 minutes of action on the court last season, Johnson showed off her passing skills, which helped her rank 17th in the nation and second in the SEC with a 2.37 assist-to-turnover ratio, the fifth-best mark in program history.
Johnson said last year the Freshies served as role models to this year's "scrappy, young group” and will push the team to achieve a similar level of success.
"They played a major part in this community at South Carolina, so we're just going to follow in their footsteps — not even that, try to do better than them," Johnson said.
Staley said she believes the one person that balances out Johnson’s pace the best is senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, who transferred from Oregon during the offseason and has two years of eligibility remaining. Paopao averaged 12.5 points, 3.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds over the course of three seasons at Oregon.
Paopao, although new to the team, has already developed into a team leader for the Gamecocks, according to Staley. Paopao said the team has a family and culture that immediately made her feel accepted and welcome at South Carolina.
"I felt that family when I came here and that culture when I came here," Paopao said. "They've definitely accepted me, and I've accepted them. They have been great so far."
With Johnson and Paopao likely playing the majority of minutes at point guard, Staley said she finds herself in an unprecedented situation with so much talent at the position.
“I don’t think I have ever had two lead guards of this caliber on our basketball team in all of my years of coaching,” Staley said.
True freshmen such as guard MiLaysia Fulwiley will embark on their first collegiate seasons under the leadership of the team's veterans. Staley said that Fulwiley has shown strong signs of potential already.
“I think she's a generational talent,” Staley said. “She does things that I haven’t seen a women’s basketball player do. The moves that she makes, the shiftiness, her ability to shoot the long ball, get to the basket at will.”
Staley said that Fulwiley, along with freshman guard Tessa Johnson and freshman forward Sahnya Jah, need to move past some of their high school habits and adapt to the quick pace of college basketball.
The team has little time left to make those adjustments, however, as the Gamecocks face a tough early season slate of opponents before starting conference play.
South Carolina will open up its 2023-24 season on Monday, Nov. 6, at 1 p.m. when it takes on No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris, France. The Gamecocks will then face No. 14 Maryland in game two of the campaign and play two more ranked teams, No. 16 North Carolina and No. 5 Utah, after Thanksgiving.
For the first time in two years, South Carolina is not ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll. The Gamecocks are instead ranked No. 6, but that does not change the team's preseason message, Staley said.
“We're in a position where we're not the hunted. We're hunting,” Staley said. “That’s not a bad place to be.”