June 28, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
Aleighsa Welch (2011-2015) and Ashley Bruner (2009-2013) enjoyed a special on-court chemistry as teammates at South Carolina while helping build the Gamecock women’s basketball program into a national power. The two alumnae recently enjoyed facing each other as opponents while playing professionally in Portugal, and they now have an amusing chemistry off the court as they help each other navigate their future basketball aspirations.
“Sometimes I think about becoming a coach, but then I come back and work some of these camps and these kids remind me too much of myself,” Bruner laughed. “That is something I have an interest in, but I don’t know how serious I am about that right now. Maybe when I hit 30, I can sit down and think about it.”
“I definitely want to coach whenever I’m done playing basketball,” Welch said. “I will play as long as I can. Seeing the impact the coaches here had on our lives, I think maybe if I can have an impact like that on somebody’s life, then that would make me happy. When I was in college, I never wanted to be a coach, but now that I look back, I can appreciate the message Coach (Dawn) Staley tried to get to me. I appreciate how hard she was on me at times because it helped me now that I am on my own.”
Welch, 22, and Bruner, 24, played in the First Division of the Liga Feminina in Portugal last year. Bruner played for Uniao Sportiva in Ponta Delgada while Welch played for CAB Madeira. The former Gamecocks had a chance to play against each other five times during the season and their recollections resemble a sibling rivalry.
“It was back and forth,” Welch said. “Ashley’s team won the first game, and my team won the second. Then they won the third. We won the fourth, and they won the one that mattered the most in the final four of the playoffs.”
“We matched up against each other sometimes, but we played this terrible zone a lot,” Bruner said, rolling her eyes.
“When they played zone, I played very well,” Welch laughed.
“Nobody would box her out,” Bruner shot back. “I had to box out the other huge one on their team.”
“She played well because I didn’t guard her,” Welch said of Bruner.
“I still would have played well,” Bruner said with another eye roll.
While the two enjoyed arguing about who had the better games, Bruner would get the last laugh as her team went on to win the league championship after defeating Welch’s team in the semifinals. Both players were named to the all-star team, and Bruner received the EuroBasket Player of the Year Award. Welch earned Newcomer of the Year honors in the league. Even with their individual success, playing professionally overseas requires some adjustments.
“Going down to a 24-second shot clock was tough,” Welch said. “I don’t think you realize how much you utilize those extra six seconds until you don’t have them. The physicality of the game is tough, too, depending on the day and whether the officials are letting stuff go, but I think playing here at South Carolina helped us prepare for that.”
“Off the court, we’re treated like rock stars. We get recognized almost everywhere.”
I’ll never encounter another Coach Staley in my life. She always had a plan.
Bruner has played overseas for three years, one in Spain and the last two in Portugal.
“After your first year, you sort of know what to expect,” Bruner said. “You just have to go by what the officials are calling or not. You can start the game off where there is a foul every trip down the floor, and then in the second half there might be no fouls called.”
The two Gamecocks didn’t get to see much of each other when they weren’t playing as the two Portuguese islands where they lived were a two-and-a-half hour plane ride away. The two still spoke almost every day, and when they did meet on the court, there wasn’t a whole lot of trash talking.
“It was just friendly talk,” Welch said. “In the games, she would grab my shorts or do something to [anger] my teammates. We just had fun. Winning or losing, we found a way to smile and have a good time. It’s different than college when you are playing against one of your friends and you have to be serious. When you are overseas, you don’t really know anyone, so it’s just exciting to see somebody you are cool with and you played with.
“We were more supportive of each other because we both went through different things with our teams. She would try to keep my head on straight, and I would try to keep her head on straight. It gets lonely after a while, so when you have friends you can talk to on a daily basis, it makes it a lot easier.”
As they reflect on their college basketball careers, Bruner and Welch agree that playing at South Carolina helped prepare them for the next level and that the discipline preached by Staley has helped them the most.
“That’s something you have to take overseas with you when you play,” Bruner said. “I’ll never encounter another Coach Staley in my life. She always had a plan. Overseas, sometimes you have to coach yourself and push yourself because some of those coaches in those leagues aren’t going to do that for you.”
“The biggest thing for me was knowing that I had the best coach I’ll ever have at the time in which I needed it the most,” Welch said. “It goes further than just basketball. When you’re between 18 and 21, you want to come and have fun, but we had a coach that made sure we stayed the course and kept us disciplined and focused. At a time when you want to run wild, we both had somebody who kept us in line. That definitely helped going overseas when you have so much time on your hands.”
While they don’t wear the Garnet and Black anymore, Bruner and Welch acknowledge that Staley is still a big part of their lives.
“She keeps that relationship extended when you graduate,” Welch said. “A lot of players from other colleges don’t have that once they graduate. If anything, I think our relationship has become much stronger since I finished school.”
“I talk to her often, especially when things get a little weird when the season comes to an end, and I’m not sure what’s happening next year,” Bruner said. “Our conversations were blunt before, and they’re still very blunt now, but it’s about more than just basketball. The relationship is more personal.”
Bruner and Welch enjoyed some time working basketball camps on their recent return to Columbia, and now they’re making plans for their next season as professionals. Bruner is hoping to play in France or Italy in the coming year. Welch will leave at the end of August to begin playing professionally in Spain.
“It’s the First Division in Spain, and my main thing is all about the competition,” Welch said. “I want to make sure I am challenging myself to become a better player. There are a couple of players in the WNBA that play in that league, so I think it will give me the exposure I need. I’m excited about it.”
Recollections of NCAA Tournaments and the fans are among the best memories these two former Gamecocks share. A little bit older and wiser, Bruner and Welch would love to go back and tell the freshman version of themselves what is to come, but the advice would still hold true for anyone putting on the uniform.
“I would tell myself to remain more focused and not depend on the coaches to get on me to do what I need to do basketball wise,” Welch said. “I would tell myself that you have to put absolutely everything you have into it and be your own motivation so that when it comes to becoming a professional, it will come naturally. College is only four years, and it really goes by like the blink of an eye. So I’d tell myself to stay focused more and cherish it.”
“I’d have to quote Coach Staley and say ‘stay the course,’ ” Bruner said.
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