South Carolina Basketball: Gamecock women's mid-season review

Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks are proving the doubters wrong wih a blistering start to the season. Will the South Carolina basketball slow down anytime soon? Spoiler alert: not likely.

Dawn Staley coaches from the sideline against Utah in the Hall of Fame Classic.
Dawn Staley coaches from the sideline against Utah in the Hall of Fame Classic. / G Fiume/GettyImages
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South Carolina basketball has maintained its elite status under Dawn Staley, and the Gamecocks are arguably the nation’s best team again this year after bowing out in the Final Four to Iowa this past spring. In fact, despite one pesky poller, South Carolina basketball is unanimously the best team in the land. Through reloading and reloading after a few stars departed, the Gamecocks are back on the path to title contention. A championship this year would be the third in the tenure of Dawn Staley for the Gamecocks. 

Part of the reason the Gamecocks’ hype train has been rolling along this year was the ultra-quick start to the season with two 100-point performances against ranked opponents just in the first two games of the new year. South Carolina defeated No. 10 Notre Dame 100-71 and No. 14 Maryland 114-76 to quell any doubts about team strength. Since then, the Gamecocks have extended their winning streak to 14 games with two more ranked wins (Utah and UNC) and 12 victories by double-digits. 

In addition to the ranked wins, Dawn Staley’s group picked up two more Power 6 wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule against Clemson and Duke. Other “cupcake” games included South Dakota State, Mississippi Valley State, Morgan State, Presbyterian, Bowling Green, and East Carolina. Now in the SEC slate of the season, South Carolina has beaten two opponents, Florida and Mississippi State, by a combined score of 172-132 to move to 14-0 on the year. 

Moving deeper into the SEC slate, South Carolina doesn’t (currently) appear to have quite the heavy lifting to do typically required for an SEC champ. The Gamecocks have one ranked matchup in the SEC on their schedule and one ranked matchup in a non-conference matchup left on the schedule. The issue there? They’ve got 14 conference games left, and just 1 non-conference game remaining (UConn). Currently, LSU is the only ranked SEC team besides the Gamecocks, though Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have looked relatively strong this season. 

The winner of the matchup between LSU and South Carolina in Baton Rouge could very well serve as the SEC regular season championship, but it would be hard to see any other game on the Gamecocks’ season slate in which they would not be favored by several points. It’s not a stretch to say this team could enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. 

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review
Stathead Section

Kamilla Cardoso currently leads the Gamecocks in PPG with 13.6 per game, and if that holds, it would mark just the 2nd time in the past 6 years that a center has led the team in points per game, joining Aliyah Boston in the 2021-22 season.

Keeping it going with Kamilla, the 6’7 senior is 1 of just 4 players in the SEC averaging a double-double, joining Angel Reese, Ajae Petty, and Saylor Poffenbarger. Cardoso’s 10.7 RPG mark ranks 3rd in the conference. 

The Gamecocks don’t have a shortage of quality rebounders, either. Both Ashlyn Watkins (18.3%) and Chloe Kitts (17.1%) have rebounding percentages that would rank top-10 in the conference if they had enough minutes to qualify for official leaderboards. (The NCAA’s stat-keeping criteria is outdated, and if they need an example to back up my claim, Chloe Kitts has played and started every game on the season for the Gamecocks and yet does not, somehow, have enough minutes played to garner leaderboard qualification.)

The South Carolina women’s basketball team isn’t just the best 3PT-shooting team in women’s basketball, they’re, statistically, 3rd-best out of all D-1 teams, women’s or men’s. Only the Baylor and Miami (FL) men have a higher 3PT% than the Gamecock women do this season, as Dawn Staley’s group is converting at a 41.9% clip from deep. That is, clearly, elite. 

But what use would an elite offense be without an elite defense? Well, South Carolina basketball doesn’t have to worry about that. They’re holding opponents to just a 31.2 FG% from *inside the arc*. This should be mind-blowing. South Carolina is shooting more than 10 percentage points better from *outside the three-point line* than their opponents are shooting from *inside* that line. I don’t know how to find out if this has ever been done before, but this is certifiably insane. 

“Is this all just a product of a weak non-conference schedule?,” the haters may say. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Actually, in terms of strength of schedule, one ranked SEC team ranks last in the conference. Another spoiler alert, it’s not South Carolina.

The Gamecocks, per SportsReference, have had the most difficult schedule in the SEC, and yet they have dominated without a loss to their name. Kim Mulkey and the Tigers, on the other hand, have played the easiest schedule in the conference so far this year, per SportsReference. 

Ashlyn Watkins, technically, hasn’t played enough minutes to qualify for most percentage or per minute stat leaderboards in the conference, but that hasn’t stopped her from putting her name in the record books. She currently leads the SEC in total blocks with 42. Even more impressive? She’s doing it despite South Carolina playing a conference-low 14 games so far this year. 11 teams have played 15+ games already, and 3 programs are already at 17 games.

Among qualified players, (yes, another “among qualified players” caveat, but still) Te-Hina Paopao is leading the SEC in 3PT% with a shocking 55.2% clip from deep. Small sample size? No. Her 37 total 3PM ranks 4th in the conference despite just 67 total attempts from deep. The leader in 3PM in the SEC, Aaliyah Nye, with 57 makes, has almost double (130) the attempts that the Oregon transfer has. If Paopao had as many attempts as the Nye, Paopao would have 72 3PM.

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review
Lineup Lookback

Dawn Staley has thrown out the same starting lineup in 12 of the team’s 14 games so far this season, that being Raven Johnson, Te-Hina Paopao, Bree Hall, Chloe Kitts, and Kamilla Cardoso. There’s been a few games that a couple regular starters have missed or games against lower-level opponents that the Gamecocks haven’t needed to throw the whole bucket at in order to win, which has led to Sakima Walker, MiLaysia Fulwiley, and Tessa Johnson all recording at least one start this season, but besides those few games, it’s been mostly the same. 

For both SEC games against Florida and Mississippi State, the usual starting five was deployed. However, as we know from the men’s side, just because a player starts the game doesn’t mean they will necessarily receive more minutes in a game than their backup. This season, of the 11 Gamecocks who have recorded a minute, 10 of them are averaging at least 10.0 MPG, a testament to both the dominance of the Gamecocks’ starters and the high talent and depth of the bench. 

MiLaysia Fulwiley and Ashlyn Watkins are the highest-playing options off the bench, both averaging between 18.0-19.0 MPG, while Tessa Johnson, Sania Feagin, and Sahnya Jah all average between 10.3-15.7 MPG. Of the starters, four of them (Paopao, Cardoso, Hall, and Johnson) average similar minutes, landing between 25.6-28.0 MPG. Chloe Kitts, who has the most pressure from her respective backup in terms of playing time, is averaging 19.1 MPG, just a bit higher than Ashlyn Watkins’s 18.5 MPG mark. 

Which Gamecocks are being used the most on offense? Per usual, it’s a team effort. 7 different Gamecocks all average between 7.0-9.4 FGA per game, which is telling about this team’s depth, in a good way. 

Here’s a believe-it-or-not stat: South Carolina ranks 4th nationally out of 361 D-1 programs with 90.4 PPG, and yet, Mississippi State’s Jerkaila Jordan scored more points in the loss to the Gamecocks (25) than any Gamecock has scored in a game this season.

In fact, this has happened five times already this year. Five times, an opposing player against South Carolina has scored 25+ points in a game despite Kamilla Cardoso’s 23-point outing on Nov. 20 being the highest-scoring output for a Gamecock all year. If any additional concerns were to be had about the Gamecocks’ offensive options coming off the bench, that stat should quell them. 

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review
Conference Slate Projection

As mentioned above, the SEC in general is not as strong as they’ve been in recent years. As opposed to the 18 conference games played by the men, the women’s team only plays 16 games against SEC opponents. That’s sure to change next year once Texas and Oklahoma join, but for now, the Gamecocks play every SEC team at least once, plus Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee twice. 

ESPN, for some reason, doesn’t show pre-game win expectancies for women’s basketball games in advance, but it can be assumed that every game besides the road matchup against LSU will be at least a 4.5-5 point spread in favor of the Gamecocks, with some most likely being much higher. I’m not foolish enough to predict a Gamecock loss to an unranked team, especially with a Gamecock team with this level of talent and skill. 

Vanderbilt, who may be ranked by the time South Carolina plays them on Jan. 28, will have to come to Colonial Life Arena to an almost certainly sold-out crowd, and though they may be the most difficult competition the Gamecocks will face outside of the Bayou Bengals, it would not be wise to suggest the Commodores could keep up with South Carolina for four quarters in a hostile environment. The Gamecocks do have to travel to College Station for a road matchup just before the pivotal game with LSU in Baton Rouge, so if there’s a game that could possibly be regarded as a “trap game”, it’s this one.

But motivation has never, and will never, be an issue for South Carolina as long as Dawn Staley is head coach. South Carolina has every advantage besides venue in this matchup, and the Gamecocks should find a way. 

Now, with respect to all other SEC programs, we get to the only in-conference game that this fanbase has any type of reason to worry about. Last year, South Carolina defeated the eventual national champions in Colonial Life Arena, handily, in a raucous environment between the then-No. 1 team (South Carolina) and the then-No. 3 team LSU. The final score was 88-64, and after the first half, there was really never a doubt. However, LSU caught some breaks in the NCAA tournament, and, after South Carolina faltered against Caitlin Clark and Iowa, the Tigers ended up lifting the trophy.

Fast forward to now, and LSU reloaded in the portal with some (reportedly) comfy NIL deals, picking up Aneesah Morrow (a Gamecock target) from DePaul and Hailey Van Lith from Louisville, as well as freshman Mikaylah Williams, who’s made a large impact for the team. This was all in addition to the return of Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson, who led the Tigers to the championship. 

That combined with South Carolina losing several key players led the media (not GarnetAndCocky, however) to select LSU and Angel Reese as SEC favorite and SEC player of the year, respectively. Though through a couple months into the season, it’s the Gamecocks, not the Tigers, that hold onto the national No. 1 ranking. Given the game’s venue in Baton Rouge, one could theoretically predict the Tigers to win the all-important de-facto SEC title game. 

But, personally, I don’t deal in theoreticals, and it’s clear that the Gamecocks have the talent advantage, coaching advantage, and, if the winning streak holds, the momentum advantage. After all, South Carolina hasn’t lost a regular season game since December of 2021. One would have to look back to February of that year to find a Gamecock regular season loss in regulation. It’s currently 2024. South Carolina will finish the SEC regular season 16-0, with an overall record of 31-0. There’s an extra win in that overall column due to the impending win over UConn on February 11. 

South Carolina Basketball Mid-Season Review
Author’s Notes and Observations

Sure, South Carolina didn’t win the tournament last year, and Baylor, Stanford, UConn, and Tennessee all have more (3+) NCAA titles than the Gamecocks do all time, with “just” 2. But I really can’t see any other program making a legitimate claim to *currently* being the top class of women’s basketball. 

Since 2017, South Carolina and Dawn Staley’s first title, no other program has multiple championships to their credit. If the Gamecocks secure another this year, (and yes, I know that’s a bigger “if” than I make it seem to be) they’ll have three titles in the span of seven tournaments, which some would consider a dynasty.

A dynasty is defined as “a line of hereditary leaders of a country” by Oxford Languages. If the metaphorical country is women’s college basketball, and the line of hereditary leaders is each consecutive Gamecock team, an 85-3 record in the past 2+ years would qualify as a dynasty. 

Dawn Staley is clearly the best coach in the current women’s college basketball landscape, and while I’ll emphasize the word “current” because we can’t discount Geno’s double-digit titles or Pat Summit’s dominance spanning three decades, the place to be as a women’s collegiate basketball player is Columbia, South Carolina.

I won’t even hear an argument from a different perspective, even though I typically gladly welcome opposing takes regarding the sports world. There is not a single program or individual that has a greater claim to the current throne of the women’s basketball world than Dawn Staley. 

If there is any possible deterrence to that statement, it would be Becky Hammon with the Las Vegas Aces, (led by former Staley recruit and South Carolina great A'ja Wilson) but she’s not in the collegiate coaching world, and this discussion solely revolves around college athletics.

South Carolina women’s basketball is the level to which every other women’s program would want to be at, and there’s an argument for Dawn Staley eventually becoming the G.O.A.T. in the women’s collegiate basketball landscape, granted she stays in Columbia. As much as I love Coach Staley, if she were to leave for a head-coaching job at a men’s program as a trailblazer, I would not blame her. Eventually, someone is going to break that glass ceiling, and Staley is as qualified for it as anyone else. 

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