New South Carolina players hope to build on Gamecocks’ success
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina five-star freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley has all the respect in the world for the Gamecocks recent generational class led by Aliyah Boston that won a national championship and reached three Final Fours.
Fulwiley, the McDonald’s All-American, thinks she and coach Dawn Staley’s four other newcomers can do even better.
“I want to come here and do way more,” Fulwiley said Wednesday. “I want to win two (NCAA Tournament) championships. There’s a whole lot of stuff that wasn’t accomplished and I feel like I’ve got the chance.”
Just equaling the output of the past four seasons seems daunting.
Boston, the overall No. 1 WNBA selection, was a two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year. She and teammates Brea Beal and Zia Cooke all earned All-American honors at different times during their four seasons. The team anchored by Boston went 129-9 from 2020-2023 including the NCAA crown in 2022.
The ride ended last spring with the undefeated Gamecocks falling 77-73 to Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the national semifinals.
Five players off South Carolina’s roster were drafted days later into the WNBA, leaving Staley a roster large on talent but short on starting experience.
No matter, said Fulwiley, who said the competition among the newest group and the returnees has been strong so far.
“People who don’t know me can call it bad pressure,” she said of following such an accomplished group. “The ones who’ve seen me play and actually know me as a person knows it’s good pressure.”
And some of it will certainly fall on the newcomers.
Along with the 5-foot-6 Fulwiley from Columbia, there’s two more freshmen in 6-1 Sahnya Jah from Montverde, Florida and 5-10 Tessa Johnson from Albertville, Minnesota.
Staley brought in two transfers in Oregon guard Te-Hina Paopao and forward Sakima Walker, a former post player at Rutgers who was the Division I NJCAA player of the year last season at Northwest Florida Junior College.
Walker, Boston’s height at 6-5, believes she’ll have an impact, but in a way that’s all her own. She said she’s got a mid-range shooting game to make her a versatile performer inside and outside.
“I know what comes at being at South Carolina,” Walker said. “I know the expectations.”
This fall, the Gamecocks will certainly trail national champion LSU in the SEC and national preseason rankings — a position the reigning league regular-season and tournament champions are not used to.
LSU coach Kim Mulkey added to her deeply skilled roster topped by forward Angel Reese and guard Flau’jae Johnson with two of the most talented players from the transfer portal in Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith and DePaul’s Aneesah Morrow.
Van Lith was Louisville’s leading scorer twice in three seasons. Morrow had 53 double-doubles in two seasons. Morrow was scheduled to visit South Carolina, but cancelled her plans after her trip to LSU.
“I know I’ve got big shoes to fill,” Walker said. “Especially being in the SEC in general with the level of competition.”
Paopao, a guard from Oceanside, California, who spent the past three seasons at Oregon, liked what she saw of South Carolina’s offense to change coasts.
She started all 35 games for the Ducks and averaged 13.1 points with an outside touch that could boost the Gamecocks. South Carolina, which has relied on its post play the past few seasons, was seventh in SEC three-point shooting and only Auburn or Georgia took fewer threes than the Gamecocks 448 in league play.
As a senior, Paopao has the experience and willing voice to lead a team where Kamilla Cardoso is top returner at 18.8 minutes played per game last seasons.
“First time around, I wanted to stay close to home,” she explained. “This time around, I wanted to win, no matter where that took me.”
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