March 26, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Championships can't be won without talent, but for South Carolina women's basketball, unselfishness and chemistry have been just as important in what has become another record-setting season on the hardwood. South Carolina won its second-straight Southeastern Conference regular-season title this year and later claimed its first SEC Tournament Championship.
"I think our team chemistry is great," senior guard Asia Dozier said. "We definitely knew prior to the season that it was going to be like this, and the contributions would be distributed throughout the team from multiple players. We just all came in with an unselfish mindset, and it showed."
In breaking the school record for wins in a season with 32 and counting, head coach Dawn Staley has assembled a wealth of talent, headlined by two-time SEC Player of the Year junior guard Tiffany Mitchell, senior First-Team All-SEC forward Aleighsa Welch, SEC Freshman of the Year A'ja Wilson, and Second-Team All-SEC center Alaina Coates. For all of their contributions, if it were not for a supporting cast of teammates who always prepare themselves to be ready when their numbers are called, the season could have gone in a different direction.
"To become a championship team, you have to fill certain roles," Staley said. "Everybody wants to talk about the stars. We could not have accomplished all that we have if we didn't have the people filling and also accepting those roles that aren't highly publicized."
South Carolina's depth has been critical in wearing down opponents with multiple waves of talent coming off the bench without any drop in production. You can easily go down the roster and find moments where any of a half a dozen other Gamecocks made a big play, or plays, to secure a victory.
"Because we have such great chemistry on our team, it creates the atmosphere where players want their teammates to do well," Staley said. "When they do well, they want to cheer and chest bump and all of those things. When you're happy for someone, that's the kind of reaction you have."
It wouldn't be a stretch to add that many of these student-athletes who did not earn all-conference accolades could have been the headline performers at other schools, but their unselfishness and work ethic have helped make the Gamecocks a championship program.
The team chemistry is great. It's really good off the court, and when you have that, then it's easier to carry that over on to the court. We care about each other and have each other's back. We love each other.
Senior guard Olivia Gaines was a junior college All-American who put up gaudy scoring numbers before transferring to South Carolina two years ago. Her role with the Gamecocks became that of a lock-down defender. Her ability to make an impact was most notable in the waning seconds of South Carolina's victory at No. 9 Duke this season when she came up with a steal in the final seconds to set up the game winning shot.
"My role is to be a defensive player and bring a lot of energy to the team," Gaines said. "Coach told me when I get in, I can make an impact, so that's what I want to do. I want to bring a lot of energy. It was hard adjusting to that role at first because I didn't know the ropes, but once you realize you're on a good team, you just embrace your role. I think it's made me a better overall player because in the back of my mind, I know I can still score, but for this team, I'm going to be the best defensive player I can be because that's my role."
Dozier has been dependable on both ends of the floor as a starter each of the last two seasons. While she doesn't always produce eye-popping statistics, her ability to make plays in the clutch has made her presence invaluable.
"I just take what's given to me," Dozier said. "I feel like I can breathe easy because other teams are going to be locked in to Tiffany Mitchell and our post players. It's a pressure release knowing that there is more attention on them, so I just need to be ready when the ball comes to me, and if the shot clock is winding down, I need to knock down open shots."
Last year Dozier scored nine first half points, including seven straight, when the Gamecocks had several starters on the bench with early foul trouble to maintain a lead at Vanderbilt in an eventual South Carolina victory. This year she repeatedly cemented that reputation. Whether it was hitting back-to-back shots to respond to a comeback attempt by Mississippi State, sealing the regular-season victory over No. 5 Tennessee with a pair of free throws with only seven seconds remaining, or burying a clutch 3-pointer against Missouri after the Tigers had pulled within two points in the second half, Dozier always seems to make a play.
"Being named one of the captains, I think I stepped into a leadership role this year," Dozier said. "I just try to be vocal and distribute what I see on and off the court, knock down open shots and get timely defensive stops or take charges. I just want to contribute."
Dozier has also had her share of big scoring nights, most recently hitting a career-high four 3-pointers to spark South Carolina in a victory over Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Having veterans display such leadership has made an impact on South Carolina's highly ranked freshman class.
"I'm willing to sacrifice," said redshirt junior guard Tina Roy. "That's something we want to teach the younger players. You have to think about the people who have been here and still have to watch sometimes from the bench. It's all about the type of game we're in and the situation. You just have to cherish the moment when you do get in. It's OK if you don't get in as long as we're all doing what we can to try to get the win."
"As coaches, we talk about being patient and understanding the process," Staley said. "You can't come in at this level and be great every day as a young person. At some point you are going to experience being a freshman. Young players need to hear those encouraging words, so our leaders and our captains can share their stories and that same identity that they went through when they were freshmen."
Roy has become more than just a 3-point shooting threat, leading the team in assists eight times off the bench this year. Her long-range shooting powered South Carolina in the SEC Tournament semifinal win over LSU after hitting five from behind the arc, including four in the second half. Taking on multiple roles has made her a better overall player.
"I've become a better player because of the people that I am surrounded by and the coaches that we have," Roy said. "I see other players working hard, and it makes me want to go hard. I see players like India Farmer give her all in practice every day. She doesn't take anything for granted. The team chemistry is great. It's really good off the court, and when you have that, then it's easier to carry that over on to the court. We care about each other and have each other's back. We love each other."
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