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It was all a little overwhelming.
The South Carolina women’s basketball team had just tipped off against Kentucky on Sunday, and senior guard LeLe Grissett was having trouble keeping it together.
In a pregame ceremony, the Gamecocks had honored their lone senior with a video tribute featuring appearances from her family and an old high school coach. Family and friends cheered loudly from a suite or two at Colonial Life Arena. And she was getting her first start in more than two years.
“The first five seconds, I couldn’t breathe. (Coach Dawn Staley) said every senior goes through it, but I just couldn’t breathe,” Grissett said. “I ain’t gonna lie, 10 seconds. It got me — the down-and-back and then the down-and-back — but then I was able to breathe.”
Grissett’s emotions ran especially deep in that moment for a couple reasons — starting with her high school coach.
“He always hit the soft spot with me,” Grissett said. “Anybody else, I could be serious. But him, when I saw that, it was just ... like, I love that man. It’s crazy how much love I have for him. And just seeing my family up there, it just means a lot how they came together through all the things that are going on in the world. Dealing with COVID, they still find a way to get here safely to support me, and that really means a lot to me. And I get to see my nephew.”
That coach, Ovester Grays, helped Grissett blossom as a five-star prospect at Hillman High School in Durham, North Carolina, winning a conference title as a senior and getting named to the Naismith Trophy midseason team. When she signed with South Carolina as part of the 2017 recruiting class, she was the highest-rated player of the bunch, joining a program fresh off a national title.
Four years of ups and downs followed. Regarded as a wing as a prospect, Grissett moved to forward when she got to USC, shoring up a unit needing a little depth. And as a freshman, she came second off the bench for an Elite Eight squad and averaged more than 13 minutes per game. Into her sophomore year, though, her playing time and production declined slightly.
Switching things up for Grissett
Heading into 2019-20 and her junior season, Staley asked Grissett to switch positions, from forward to guard. It was, Staley admitted, the position she had wanted to play as a freshman. The depth at each group simply hadn’t allowed for it — at 6-foot-2, her size was too valuable. But her ball-handling skills and speed were undeniable, and she could guard multiple positions.
“Her ability to embrace criticism and just improvement has helped her growth tremendously,” Staley said at the time. “She doesn’t fight us anymore, she’s open. She’s texting me, ‘I want to get better at playing the guard position, so help me.’ When a player’s expressing that, they want to get better, and you can see how much she’s improved.”
Sure enough, Grissett’s junior year came with a jump in playing time — to over 17 minutes per game, even as she never actually started, the first time she did not get at least one start in a season. She shot 62.6% from the field, tops on the team, and made valuable contributions in the team’s run to a No. 1 ranking and 32-1 record.
That jump has continued into her senior year, where she’s now the most veteran player on the roster. Her minutes, points and rebounds are all at career highs. Still coming off the bench (at least before Sunday), Grissett consistently gives the Gamecocks a jolt of energy when she enters the game, capable of running the floor, acting as a defensive pest and playing anything from point guard to a small-ball four. She even sank her first career 3-pointer against Missouri.
“It’s a hard position to be in, especially for a senior like LeLe who’s been around, who barely starts, but has a huge impact on the game every time she comes in from the bench,” Staley said after that Missouri contest. “She gives us great comfort in knowing that who we have coming in off the bench gives us a totally different look. Could she start? Absolutely she could start. Would her impact be more off the bench? I think so, and that’s why it’s been that way.”
Looking ahead: WNBA next?
That brings us back to Sunday, when Grissett certainly needed some time to adjust to her starting role. In the first quarter against the Wildcats, she scored one point, pulled down four rebounds and blocked a shot. As the game went on, though, her comfort offensively grew, and she finished with 13 points, six boards, two blocks and an assist.
She also was instrumental in helping shut down Kentucky star Rhyne Howard, who averages more than 19 points per game but finished just 2 of 11 against USC.
That broad array of skills, Staley said, could allow Grissett to excel in the WNBA. She hasn’t been included in any mock drafts or draft boards, but Staley said she hopes the deeper the Gamecocks play in the postseason, the more pro scouts and GMs will get to see what the senior has to offer.
There’s also the possibility that she could return to South Carolina. The NCAA has approved an extra year of eligibility for all winter sport athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Staley said she would welcome Grissett back, while Grissett hasn’t said what she’s thinking one way or another. On Sunday, though, she did note that the pandemic has made her senior year feel especially quick.
“COVID made the season go even faster than I expected. But what do they say, once you turn around, four years, it goes by fast?” Grissett said. “I didn’t want listen to people when they told me back then — how are four years gonna go by fast when high school took forever? But it flew.”
Should Grissett decide to move on, Staley said she’s already cemented a legacy, as that of a player who sacrificed for the good of the team.
“The way you see her play is the way she practices. And it sets a tremendous example of waiting your turn, and then waiting your turn turns into being an asset out there on the floor, so she probably single-handedly raises the level of our play just by her approach to the game,” Staley said.
“You know, Elysa (Wesolek) doesn’t play a whole lot, Olivia (Thompson) doesn’t play a whole lot, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by what they bring to practice every day. And that’s probably more so of who they are and also just the example that LeLe set for them.”