How freshman Ashlyn Watkins is flashing her potential for South Carolina basketball
A couple months ago, the South Carolina women’s basketball team was going through a routine drill when Brea Beal heard a voice — a new voice — rising above the others, loudly and correctly calling out a looming ball screen. She turned to a teammate in shock.
“Was that Ashlyn?”
Sure was. Beal looks back on that moment with pride, she said last week, because it’s one of the first times she remembers Ashlyn Watkins, her undeniably talented but naturally introverted USC freshman teammate, really making her presence known in practice.
Now, it’s a common occurrence.
“We hear her on the court,” South Carolina guard Kierra Fletcher said, “and that was something that we never really heard earlier this season. And when she’s speaking, she’s speaking confidently. And she’s speaking loud.”
That improved communication is one of many freshman-year feathers in the cap for Watkins, a homegrown star and former McDonald’s All-American who’s developed into an productive bench player for South Carolina (34-0), the undefeated reigning national champions.
As the No. 1 Gamecocks prepare for Saturday’s Sweet 16 game against UCLA, the 6-foot-3 Watkins is USC’s sixth-leading scorer at 5.3 points per game (and sixth-leading rebounder) despite starting zero games and playing the 10th fewest minutes per game of anyone on the roster.
She played 16 minutes — her most in a game since Feb. 2 — in South Carolina’s first-round NCAA Tournament win over Norfolk State and scored five points on five shots. In a second-round win over South Florida, she had a quick four points in two minutes of mop-up duty.
And, naturally, she’s still getting the occasional message about her viral Nov. 17 dunk against Clemson, which made her the first South Carolina women’s player and ninth player in Division I women’s basketball history to record one in a game.
In other words: not her worst March.
“I’m most proud of just my intensity and being able to keep up with college basketball,” Watkins told The State. “I know that it’s my first year and I still have a lot more to learn. But I feel like I got the hang of it now, and I have more potential to be better than what I am right now.”
Staying ready as a freshman
Recruiting sites certainly agreed. Coming out of Columbia’s Cardinal Newman School, where she was the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder and winner of four straight state championships, Watkins ranked as the No. 12 player in the Class of 2022.
But, like many of coach Dawn Staley’s recent recruits, Watkins has spent Year 1 as a Gamecock practicing the power of patience. A reminder of the forwards playing ahead of her: reigning national player of the year Aliyah Boston, SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Kamilla Cardoso, fifth-year senior Victaria Saxton and fourth-year senior Laeticia Amihere.
Watkins was the opposite of blindsided. All four of those players were key members of South Carolina’s 2022 national championship team, and she knew very well the roles Boston, Cardoso, Saxton and Amihere would play on the Gamecocks’ 2022-23 team. (Who didn’t?)
“Absolutely, with the team that we have, I have to have patience,” Watkins said, “because I know that they’ve been here for a while. And they’re (all) great basketball players, so they’re gonna have to shine first, and I’m just gonna have to be patient.”
Her mindset has paid dividends during SEC play and postseason play, two ever-important stretches for South Carolina in which Watkins’ minutes have, understandably, tailed off a bit from non-conference play. (Five of her seven double-digit scoring games came in November.)
When Staley has called her name, she’s been ready regardless of circumstance. Watkins had 13 points and six rebounds in 26 minutes against Missouri, on Jan. 15, after zero points and four minutes the previous game against Kentucky. She had 12 points in 15 minutes against Florida, on Feb. 16, after zero points and three minutes against LSU.
Heck, her five points and 16 minutes against Norfolk State — which included an early sub-in at the 3:18 mark of the first quarter and an impactful defensive stretch — came after Watkins did not play in the SEC championship game against Tennessee.
It’s been a measured doling out of minutes, and one that’s allowed Watkins and Sania Feagin, another young forward, to pick up big-game experience in more controlled environments. After all, up to seven USC seniors — including its top four forwards — could leave after the season.
“I’d like for some of our young post players to really get some experience playing in big games and having them be counted on and give them some experience to understand that it’s going to take more than what they did today for us to be successful next year,” Staley said after USC beat Norfolk State.
That was the case against the Spartans, a No. 16 seed. Not so much against No. 8 South Florida, a closer game (initially) in which Watkins played two fourth-quarter minutes.
But whenever opportunity next knocks — UCLA? The Elite Eight? Next year? — Watkins and her teammates agreed: She’ll be ready to take the next step, communicating like anyone but a freshman along the way.
“Her defense is tremendous,” guard Olivia Thompson said. “She’s always working on her offense. … And she’s strong — like, so strong. It’s just really exciting to see how much she’s grown in a short amount of time and how much she’ll grow throughout these next few years.”
NCAA Tournament: How to watch Gamecocks
Who: No. 1 South Carolina (34-0) vs. No. 4 UCLA (27-9)
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Stream: Via ESPN or the ESPN app
Sweet 16 game schedule this week
Listed by day/region
Greenville 2: Villanova vs. Miami, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Greenville 2: Utah vs. LSU, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
Seattle 4: Iowa vs. Colorado, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Seattle 4: Louisville vs. Mississippi, 10 p.m. (ESPN)
Greenville 1: Maryland vs. Notre Dame, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Greenville 1: South Carolina vs. UCLA, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Seattle 3: UConn vs. Ohio St., 4 p.m. (ABC)
Seattle 3: Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2)