COLUMBIA - Dawn Staley is ready to start a new chapter her South Carolina women's basketball program.
The coach believes the program will continue its winning ways, albeit with a different look. The Gamecocks won't be led by dominant post players, Staley will turn her focus to her backcourt.
The feisty Staley wants to show her program is built for the long haul, ala UConn, which thrives no matter how many All-Americans they lose. South Carolina's lost A'ja Wilson, the top pick in this year's WNBA draft, but Staley is confident the Gamecocks have many special moments ahead.
"It just doesn't stop here because (Wilson) isn't here," Staley said.
The Gamecocks return 6-3 Alexis Jennings, the Kentucky transfer who was expected to continue the high-low, two tall-person style Wilson mastered with former teammate Alaina Coates - a style that South Carolina used to reach the top of the Southeastern Conference and win the 2017 national title.
Jennings, though, struggled with consistency, sometimes following a strong performance with a so-so one. Jennings had 22 points and 10 rebounds in a blowout win over Arkansas last January, then had 13 points combined the next three games against Missouri, UConn and Mississippi State.
Jennings averaged 11 points and 6.6 rebounds, second in both to Wilson.
"We have to stay encouraged. This is not the end," Jennings said. "We have another year to get it right."
South Carolina's post game will involve several players who haven't had much playing time. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, at 6-2, was a solid third option down low and filled in well when Wilson and Coates each missed games during the 2017 title winning season.
Herbert Harrigan took a modest step forward this season, upping her average from 5 points a game as a freshman to 7 this season.
Freshmen forwards LeLe Grissett (6-foot) and LaDazhia Williams (6-2) will also have to make some strides to help fill in the nearly 12 rebounds a game Wilson pulled down this season.
The most talented part of Staley's team next season should be its backcourt.
Tyasha Harris, who led the SEC in assists, is back for a third season as starting point guard. Doniyah Cliney, who came in with Wilson as part of the team's No. 2 ranked recruiting class, is also back for a final year after nearly eight points a game.
Freshman Bianca Jackson led the Gamecocks with 41 3-pointers and was eighth in SEC shooting percentage behind the arc. South Carolina will need her to continue hitting outside shots next season.
"Our young players are going to have to grow," Staley said. "There's no doubt they'll put in the work to improve."
The Gamecocks bring on several new pieces for next year, led by Tennessee transfer Te'a Cooper. Cooper made the SEC all-freshman team two years ago and is eligible to play this fall after missing 2016-17 with injury and sitting out last year after joining the Gamecocks due to NCAA guidelines.
Freshman Destanni Henderson is a 5-8 point guard out of Fort Myers, Florida who was a McDonald's All-American this season and ranked the country's top point guard prospect. Could South Carolina have three ball-handlers on the floor at the same time? Staley just smiles as she ponders.
The Gamecocks also added two 6-1 forwards in Victaria Sexton and Elysa Wesolek, both who bring immediate rebounding help with Wilson's departure.
"No one believed that we could do any of this," Wilson said. "And it's not ending. It's going to keep going."
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