Checking in on South Carolina’s touted newcomers midway through 2021-22 season

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  • Dawn Staley
    American basketball player and coach

Members of South Carolina’s top-ranked recruiting class from 2021, as well as its highly sought-after transfer addition from the offseason, are all settling in under head coach Dawn Staley in Columbia.

The Gamecocks women’s basketball team returned every member of last year’s Final Four squad and have mostly maintained consistency with the same starting five as the 2020-21 season, aside from starting point guard Destanni Henderson’s three-game absence with an injury in December.

Seventeen games into this season, Staley knows her newest additions want to see the floor more often. Many of them have carved out extra time with good performances in practice, which in turn has built confidence.

“It’s not them being completely satisfied with sitting over there for all of those minutes,” Staley said in a press conference Jan. 8. “But I do think we do a really good job of just explaining how things work. And they’re growing, even though they’re not playing a whole lot of minutes.”

Back in November, Staley said she knew she’d get some “good, bad and ugly” from USC’s bench, including the newcomers. But she has been impressed with the growth she’s seen through the early part of SEC play, and the newest Gamecocks have had their bright moments, including in a comeback win at No. 13 LSU on Jan. 6.

“I thought they did a great job at LSU just holding serve,” Staley said. “That builds confidence and trust.”

Cardoso assuming a key role off the bench

Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso has made the largest impact of the newcomers. The 6-foot-7 center has cemented her role as one of the first Gamecocks off the bench, averaging 15.4 minutes per game for the season and 18.8 minutes in conference play, with sixth-woman Laeticia Amihere absent for the last four games due to health and safety protocols.

Cardoso ranks second on the team in blocked shots (28) and rebounds per game (5.6), both behind preseason All-American Aliyah Boston. Cardoso is sixth in the SEC in blocked shots.

Staley said Cardoso, like all of the other newcomers, is still learning, and she’d like to see the sophomore to take more of her own shots. Staley said Cardoso’s unselfish play has been “a hard habit to break,” as the Gamecocks are working to build a package for her to score more often in the paint.

“There’s progress. It’s probably not as quick as we would like it to be, but we meet people where they are,” Staley said on Jan. 12. “She’s used to playing a lot of minutes, and those minutes are cut in half. She’s trying to figure out where she fits in, but I like her progress.”

Gamecock freshmen coming along

As for the freshman class, 6-foot guard Bree Hall has grown into a defensive force in SEC play. Hall played a primary role, along with veteran defensive specialist Brea Beal, against Kentucky star Rhyne Howard, who was neutralized to 2 of 14 from the field when the Gamecocks beat the Wildcats on Jan. 9.

Hall is averaging 9.4 minutes in conference play, the most of USC first-years, and played a career-high 23 minutes against Kentucky. Staley said she’s seen Hall’s growth in practice, which translated to more minutes.

“You can tell she wants it,” Staley said. “She wants to make an impact. I don’t think she knows any other way besides to play hard. I think earlier on, her speed got her in trouble, so she’s controlling her speed a lot more on both sides of the basketball.”

Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin have each progressed, watching their minutes grow as the season continued. Feagin played a significant role in the LSU win, pulling down four rebounds and tallying an assist in seven minutes of play.

Rivers played 25 minutes in the Gamecocks’ 66-59 top-10 win over Maryland on Dec. 12, finishing the game with four points, four rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal.

Staley said she usually takes the approach of wanting a player to show her they’re ready for playing time in practice, but she had to change that approach with Rivers. Staley said Rivers gains confidence with minutes, and performances like the one she had against Maryland showed that she was getting comfortable.

“I just felt like in the Maryland game, she gets out of her own way,” Staley said on Dec. 14. “She doesn’t try to do things that aren’t in her wheelhouse. If she feels like she can’t do it, she’s gonna defer. I like that, and you really can’t see that until you’re in the game.”

Freshman point guard Raven Johnson, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in the second game, remains with the team as she recovers for next year. She played eight minutes of the season opener at N.C. State before leaving the next game against South Dakota within one minute of action.

Staley said the secret to bringing the freshmen and sophomores along is shortening the playbook. USC’s pace is meant to be eased into, and helping newcomers keep a pace that’s best for them is what will allow them to grow into the system.

“I think sometimes the rate in which we implement things is hard to keep up with if you haven’t been around,” Staley said. “We’ve built that up with some of the core players on our team. ... They can do it, but the young ones can’t keep up. Their minds aren’t ready for that pace.

“They’ll get there as juniors and seniors, but as freshmen and sophomores, we have to show them the pace, and you’ve got to keep up. If you can’t keep up, then shorten the package. I’m looking forward to them playing some more minutes for us and getting more and more confident.”

Next South Carolina women’s basketball game

Who: No. 1 South Carolina (16-1, 4-1 SEC) vs. Arkansas (11-5, 1-2 SEC)

When: Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark.

Watch: ESPN2

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