March 15, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
Every senior class has something of which it is most proud. The 2016 senior class for South Carolina women’s basketball has a lot of great things from which to choose. The evolution of these student-athletes is a reminder of how far they have come, and their significance in building Coach Dawn Staley’s program into a national contender.
“When we recruited them, the main question we posed to them was ‘Do you love basketball,’” Staley said. “They all said ‘yes.’ We want all of our players to love basketball because, as coaches, we’re going to ask you to do some things out of the love of the game. They all made that commitment to the love of the game, and it shows through the things that they’ve been able to accomplish, not just on the court, because they really are quality human beings. You can’t succeed in all that has taken place over the last few years without having quality people.”
The 2016 senior class has accumulated more victories than any other class in program history with 119 over the last four years, eclipsing the 2015 class’ mark of 113. The class is made up of fifth-year senior Tina Roy, four-year student-athletes Asia Dozier, Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions, as well as Sarah Imovbioh, who transferred to South Carolina this past year for her final season of eligibility. The seniors have helped the team reach the NCAA Tournament in each of their years on campus, including all five years for Roy, in addition to winning three straight Southeastern Conference regular-season championships, back-to-back SEC Tournament championships, and the program’s first NCAA Final Four appearance last season.
“All of them after each year put themselves into a position to look within and figure out how they could make a bigger impact,” Staley said. “They had to ask how their role could change and how they could better that role.”
Each senior has taken a different path in the evolution of their roles and individual marks they would leave on the program.
Asia Dozier felt the frustration of not seeing what made her a star in high school immediately translate to the college game.
“I think the biggest change I’ve seen in myself on the court is not just being reliant on my jump shot,” Dozier said. “I came in as a 3-point shooter, and my freshman year not having my shots fall the way I was used to them falling in high school, it just opened my game up and diversified it a little bit so I could become more versatile in other areas. Whether it was becoming a better passer or learning how to play more than one position, or just being a leader off the court and always being someone my teammates felt like they could lean on. I grew from being someone who was mentored by the older players to someone who is mentoring the younger players and just leading by example.”
“Asia has always been that person you can go to talk about anything,” Sessions said. “She has a different IQ for the game that a lot of people do not have. Not even point guards. She just sees things differently. She has always been that mature person we can go to for anything and everything.”
“Asia has grown as a leader,” Roy added. “She is really smart on the court and off the court. So if you need something, she can help you out because she is really, really smart.”
While Dozier deserves credit for all of the hard work and willingness to accept the role carved out for her, the instruction she received from coaches as well as mentoring from upperclassmen throughout her career were critical.
“Elem Ibiam (2011-15) was like a big sister here on the team,” Dozier said. “She took me under her wing. She was to me what I am to other people now. She helped me embrace that role. She just kind of helped me keep things in perspective and stay focused and level-headed with the adjustment you had to make going from high school to college. She also helped me to develop into the leader that I am because she and (Aleighsa Welch) were great leaders for us. We still talk all the time.
“All of the coaches have impacted my growth here. They have all played a different role as to what it is I needed at the time. They all extend themselves to us beyond basketball. It’s a great support system.”
Sarah Imovbioh already had a standout career for three years at Virginia. Having earned her degree at UVA, she decided to use her final year of eligibility at South Carolina while attending graduate school. Similar to her thirst for knowledge, her willingness to take on a different role with the Gamecocks helped make it a smooth adjustment, quickly becoming an integral part of an already close-knit group of upperclassmen.
“Sarah is one of my best friends,” Roy said. “Our relationship is too funny. We’re always fussing with each other, and Asia Dozier is the instigator and tries to get us to keep fussing. Sarah, I’ve really loved her in the short time that I’ve known her.”
“Sarah, she is just great for us,” Mitchell added. “She keeps everyone going. She definitely fits in with us.”
“Sarah hasn’t been here for a long time, but in the months she has been here, she has really gelled with us,” Sessions said. “She has been a solid part of our team. She has a high spirit, and she is a really loving person. She brings a lot to this team. It feels like she has been here for all four years now.”
We want all of our players to love basketball because, as coaches, we’re going to ask you to do some things out of the love of the game.
Tiffany Mitchell was a starter from day one, later becoming an All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year.
“Throughout my four years, I’ve definitely been tested,” Mitchell said. “I’ve learned a lot through Coach Staley about how to act like a winner on and off the court. I learned a lot of things that will help me after basketball. So that’s a huge difference from my freshman year when I was just one-minded in that I just wanted to play basketball all the time and not do or think about anything else.”
“She watched Ieasia Walker (2009-13) and the other leaders of that team when she was a freshman and learned how to play an integral role in our success on both sides of the ball,” Staley said.
Growing up as a fan of Dawn Staley as a basketball player, Mitchell understood that she would gain an education from Staley as a coach.
“I’ve had countless conversations with Coach Staley about basketball,” Mitchell said. “She has told me that I kind of reminded her of her as far as what I wanted to do with basketball and how far I wanted to go. Throughout my four years, she would tell me that my mental approach to the game is going to have to change completely. My freshman year, I was just kind of thrown out there and played off of athleticism. I never really thought about the game, even though we had scouting reports and all of that stuff. I learned there is definitely a lot more to it than that.”
Self-reflection and the coach’s perspective aren’t the only ways to measure how the seniors have grown during their careers, as current and former teammates can see the progression.
“I’ve seen growth in all of the seniors; Tiffany in particular,” Dozier said. “Just watching her develop not just as a great player, but as a great leader through the way she is capable of playing. We feed off of her energy and her competitive spirt. She has learned how to channel that into her leadership ability."
“Aleighsa Welch (2011-15) was always a big mentor for me,” Mitchell said. “She would always talk to me about basketball. She knows that I’m my biggest critic. I’m always hard on myself. She would calm me down and tell me things would be alright. She was my right hand.”
Looking back, Mitchell has some advice for the freshman version of herself, which would serve other young players as well.
“For me, it would be ‘Don’t doubt yourself with whatever you do,’ ” Mitchell said. “I’m the hardest on myself. Sometimes when I’m in a little slump, I start to doubt or second guess my abilities when I know I’ve put in the time to make sure I can get things done. Since my freshman year, I think I’ve grown to know that if you put in the work, it’s going to pay off.”
Tina Roy overcame adversity after suffering a torn ACL between her first and second seasons, and had to learn what it was like to be a hungry spectator. She had to work hard to get back to being the player she knew she could be.
“I know when I first came here my freshman year, I gained my ‘freshman 15,’ ” Roy laughed. “Then I got smaller in the summer time, so you just have to push through physically and mentally to get through hard times - you know, with the ACL injury. You just have to work hard.
“(Assistant) Coach (Nikki) McCray was always staying on me about what I should eat, when I should get shots up, and what I should be doing on defense. I know there were times I’d act like I wasn’t really listening, but I really was.”
As her work habits improved, so did her performance on game day.
“Tina Roy has a great basketball IQ,” Staley said. “And she found her way into the gym. When you find your way into the gym, your shooting percentage is going to increase. She has given us that outside threat that we’ve needed. Sometimes it takes a few years to understand all the things that it takes to be successful on the individual level.”
“Tina has definitely changed her approach to the game,” Mitchell said. “At first, she just wanted to shoot all the time. I’ve seen her game grow a lot since my freshman year.”
“Tina works a lot harder in practice now than she did before,” Sessions added. “She has taken a different approach to it."
Like most of this year’s seniors, the upperclassmen from Roy’s early years made an impact.
“Lakeisha Sutton (2008-12) helped me out,” Roy said. “She still talks to me now. She knows how Coach Staley coached, so she would tell me how to go about everything.”
While she always had plenty of energy, Khadijah Sessions wasn’t always the savvy, defensive minded leader fans see from the point guard today. She had to learn how to be a college point guard, and making the necessary adjustments isn’t always easy for young players coming right out of high school.
“Mentally, I’ve grown,” Sessions said. “I was not ready to lead a team (as a freshman). Coach knew it, but I didn’t understand in the beginning why I wasn’t playing or why things weren’t going my way. She had a plan for me. I had to sit back and watch my freshman year, and now I’ve been a three-year starter. She has really helped me along the way, mentally, and growing up to be a point guard who can run a basketball team.”
“When you’re a scoring point guard in high school, that is the thing you want to do on this level,” Staley said. “When you are surrounded by so many different high-level players, as a point guard, sometimes you are the fourth or fifth option. It took her a while to make that adjustment, but now she is playing her best basketball because she is understanding the types of shots she should take.”
That growth and understanding isn’t lost on her teammates.
“She had a good teacher her freshman year with Ieasia (Walker),” Mitchell said. “Then she had to step in after that and everyone expected her to be just like Ieasia, but Khadijah had her own approach on how she would want to lead this team.”
“Coach Staley puts a lot of pressure on her point guards, having been the point guard that she was,” Dozier said. “It was tough for her during her freshman year with the adjustments that she had to make to her game, but seeing her embrace it, and to take on the role that she needed for our team to be as good as we were, and just watching her grow in that way was an amazing thing to watch.”
Sessions acknowledges that her own growth couldn’t have happened without help.
“For me, Ieasia Walker (2009-13) was the upperclassman I looked up to,” Sessions said. “She was quiet in practice, but she always talked to me and kept me engaged in everything that was going on. She told me how everything was going to pay off, but that I had to show it in practice and work at it to get better.
“(Coach Staley) really is the type of person who wants to have a close connection with her point guard. You’re running her team, so you want to have a close connection with her. Then you have (Associate Head) Coach (Lisa) Boyer. She has been around this game for a long time. She coached Coach Staley. She has very good things to say even when you don’t want hear it. You can be just as real with her as she is with you.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
The banners will hang in the Colonial Life Arena long after this senior class has gone. They may be the group to which future teams are compared. Having seen the growth of the program in their time, each is glad to have been a part of history.
“I want to be remembered as someone who always worked hard and just went after what they wanted,” Mitchell said.
“I want to be remembered as one of the most energized players to play here,” said Sessions.
“I want to be remembered as someone who never gave up on their dreams, and someone who always finished what she started,” Roy added.
“I just want to be remembered as everything that being a Gamecock embraces,” Dozier said. “I want to be someone that people would be proud to say they knew. Just somebody that impacts other people’s lives in the most positive way. Somebody who people always felt like they could go to and lean on and that I always came through for them in their time of need.”
Graduating student-athletes is paramount to South Carolina athletics, but you can forgive fans, teammates and coaches if they become a little more sentimental for the seniors of 2016.
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