The Daily Gamecock

Dawn Staley looks to give freshmen expanded roles ahead of season: 'We only have 11 players'

<p>FILE — Head coach Dawn Staley interviews with SEC Network’s Alyssa Lang and Steffi Sorensen during the Gamecock’s open practice at the Women’s Final Four on Mar. 30, 2023. South Carolina fell in its third consecutive Final Four appearance to Iowa.</p>
FILE — Head coach Dawn Staley interviews with SEC Network’s Alyssa Lang and Steffi Sorensen during the Gamecock’s open practice at the Women’s Final Four on Mar. 30, 2023. South Carolina fell in its third consecutive Final Four appearance to Iowa.

The No. 6 South Carolina Gamecocks women's basketball team is looking to reload for another national championship run after welcoming a promising class with three top 40 recruits. 

Head coach Dawn Staley added freshman forward Sahnya Jay and freshman guards MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson in the offseason to a team that also includes six returners and two transfers. Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts was originally part of the 2023 recruiting class but enrolled early in December 2022.

Jah hails from Montverde Academy in Florida. She was the No. 40 overall player in the 2023 class, according to ESPN, and helped Montverde to the 2023 GEICO High School National Championship, averaging 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds during her senior year, which earned her a Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-America honorable mention. 

"(She's) athletically gifted. Elite athlete," Staley said. "Unafraid to mix it up, great offensive rebounder, great defender." 

Fulwiley is a 5-foot-10-inch guard from Columbia, who attended W.J. Keenan High School and averaged 25.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 5.7 steals per game as a senior.

Her performance in high school made her a WBCA All-American, a three-time South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association (SCBCA) 3A Player of the Year and the SCBCA 2A Player of the Year in 2023. Fulwiley started her varsity career as a 7th grader and led her team to four state titles throughout her six seasons, including three in a row from 2020 to 2022. 

Fulwiley was the highest-ranked of the South Carolina freshman at No. 13 overall in the class. Staley called her "a generational talent" and said she has a skillset unlike any other women's basketball player Staley has seen.  

Redshirt sophomore guard Raven Johnson said she's grateful to being playing with Fulwiley this season rather than against the freshman guard.

"We played AAU together for like three years, so I have a great chemistry with her," Raven Johnson said. "She's actually an offensive and a defensive threat. You don't know if she's going to pass, you don't know she's gonna shoot it. She's just athletic, so be on the look for her."

Staley said she was impressed by Fulwiley's 3-point shooting and ability to get physical in the paint but wants to see her improve as she gets more playing time early in the season.

"She's very, very coachable, she wants to be great, but we have to teach her greatness is a process," Staley said.

After growing up in the area, Fulwiley said making her unofficial debut in the Gamecock's 100-55 exhibition win over Rutgers was unreal.

"When I first got in the game and I made my first 3, I was like 'Oh my god,' the crowd went crazy," Fulwiley said. "It was just a deciding moment for me, and I know it was a deciding moment for my family."

Tessa Johnson, who played for Saint Michael Albertville in Minnesota, rounds out the recruiting class as the No. 1 recruit from her home state and No. 25 nationally.

Johnson was named to the McDonald's All-American team as well as the All-USA Today team in 2023 along with Fulwiley. Johnson averaged 24.3 points, 6.6 assists and 2.8 steals per game as a senior, helping lead her high school to its first state title since 2009 while earning the title of Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Miss Basketball.

Staley said that Johnson, who won the 3-point shooting contest at McDonald's All-America weekend, can "flat out shoot the basketball," but needs to develop more confidence as she adjusts to the college level.

"Tessa needs to be a little bit more selfish in scoring a basketball, cause she can do that," Staley said. "Some of her best defense is going to be her ability to put the ball in the hole.

The Gamecocks start the season with five players in their junior or senior year, but Staley said the limited roster will allow her to give the freshmen more opportunities this year.

"We only have 11 players," Staley said. "Everybody's going to get an opportunity to play."

South Carolina will start its season overseas in a neutral matchup against No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris, France, on Monday at 1 p.m. EST. 

Staley said the first few games will be key to the the Gamecocks figuring out its full rotation, especially with the starting lineup being largely the same for the last three years.

"Now is the time in which we're going to have to pick a starting lineup, we're going to have to define some roles," Staley said.

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