Changing of the guard: Gamecocks look to backcourt success
By PETE IACOBELLI
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina is changing its approach this season, turning to its deep group of guards to keep the four-time Southeastern Conference Tournament champions on top.
Coach Dawn Staley led the team to a national title in 2017, largely with a run of players like Alaina Coates and last year's consensus national player of the year A'ja Wilson.
But with the 6-foot-5 Wilson excelling as a WNBA rookie in Las Vegas, Staley's most experienced and talented players start in the backcourt.
"We'll look a little different," Staley said. "But, hopefully, we'll have the same results."
There is no natural successor to Wilson, the dynamic All-American who set the school's career scoring mark. So Staley is counting on experienced guard play from returning veterans like Tyasha Harris and Bianca Cuevas-Moore and first-year transfers like Te'a Cooper from Tennessee and Nelly Perry from Clemson.
Opponents will likely see three guards in the lineup much of the time next season. Staley, a former point guard who led the United States to three Olympic gold medals, has toyed with four-guard lineups to take advantage of what she believes is the team's improved quickness.
"We have a lot of options," Staley said. "We can go positional with three guards, we can go small with four guards."
Harris was a freshman starter at the point for the national champions; she then led the SEC in assists as a sophomore.
She will be challenged this year at the position by Cooper and Cuevas-Moore.
Cooper made the SEC all-freshman team two years ago with the Lady Vols and is eligible to play this fall after missing 2016-17 with injury. She sat out last year after joining the Gamecocks due to NCAA guidelines.
Cuevas-Moore, part of the same recruiting class as Wilson that ranked No. 2 in the country, had announced her transfer to West Virginia for a final season. But after her graduation, Staley reached out and discovered Cuevas-Moore was not locked into leaving.
The coach and player have not always seen eye-to-eye, but they continued talking and Cuevas-Moore will finish her college career where it began.
Staley is confident Cuevas-Moore can play like the lead guard she envisioned when she first recruited her.
"She's ready to take that next step," Staley said.
Perry may be the most surprising addition to the Gamecocks. She played three seasons with Staley's former college teammate and good friend Audra Smith at Clemson, where Perry was the leading scorer two years ago.
But she missed last season with a shoulder injury. When Smith was let go by the Tigers - Smith is now coach at South Carolina State - Perry joined the Gamecocks as a graduate transfer.
Staley said Perry's biggest role will be providing leadership lost with Wilson's departure.
"When you lose someone like A'ja, you want in some other way to gain some experience in the locker room," the coach said.
Add senior Doniyah Cliney and sophomores Bianca Jackson and Lele Grissett to the guard mix while South Carolina's top newcomers are guards in Victaria Saxton and McDonald's All-American Destanni Henderson.
"I'm just excited," Staley said, "because all of them are a lot different than each other."
Updated July 10, 2018