Dawn Staley had plenty of talent to manage throughout the 2021-22 national championship season for South Carolina women’s basketball.
The Gamecocks are on track to return many key pieces and reload with more talent behind next year’s hopes of becoming the fourth NCAA women’s basketball program to win back-to-back titles.
Here’s an early look at how the Gamecocks’ roster is shaping up for the 2022-23 campaign.
1. Four of USC’s five national championship starters return
Part of this season’s recipe for national championship success for South Carolina was that it returned the entire roster from the 2020-21 Final Four team. This time, the Gamecocks return all but one starter.
Aliyah Boston will enter her senior year as the nation’s best player, unanimously selected as national player of the year behind a record-breaking season of 27 straight double-doubles. The 6-foot-5 forward led the Gamecocks on both ends of the floor — as USC’s best scorer (16.8 points per game) and rebounder (12.5 boards per game) — and is set to continue to be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
Brea Beal has fully come into her role as the Gamecocks’ defensive specialist, bringing 100 career starts into her final campaign in Columbia. The 6-foot-1 guard scored less often as a junior than she did as a sophomore—averaging 5.1 last season compared with 7.1 the year prior—but her veteran presence is set to lead one of the nation’s most prolific defenses next year.
Zia Cooke’s junior campaign was more inconsistent than either of her first two seasons with USC, averaging a career-low 10.7 points per game on 34.2% shooting. The 5-foot-9 guard has room to grow but still made its impact known with big games against North Carolina and Louisville in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Veteran starter Victaria Saxton’s decision to return for a fifth year solidified the return of the Gamecocks’ formidable frontcourt. The 6-foot-2 forward showed her impact throughout the season as the team’s second-best rebounder and shot blocker, but she was undeniably important to South Carolina’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina (6 points, 14 rebounds) and Elite Eight victory over Creighton (11 points, 11 rebounds).
2. Managing USC’s departures
A notable piece missing from last year’s starting five is point guard Destanni Henderson, who left South Carolina on a high note behind a career-best 26 points in the national championship victory over UConn. She’s projected to go in the first round of the WNBA draft after two seasons as South Carolina’s starting point guard, during which she led the Gamecocks to back-to-back Final Fours and the title win.
Veteran reserve LeLe Grissett exhausted her eligibility after taking a final year to play with USC after missing the 2021 NCAA tournament due to injury. Grissett provided sparks both on and off the floor, and that will be tough to replicate.
The Gamecocks will also deal with two transfer portal departures from reserves Elysa Wesolek and Eniya Russell. Both Wesolek and Russell saw limited minutes in the 2021-22 season. Wesolek, a senior, has one year of remaining eligibility, while Russell has two.
Destiny Littleton has been on a college basketball roster for five years, sitting out the 2019-20 season after transferring to USC from Texas. The Gamecocks’ 3-point specialist off the bench could, in theory, return for another season, though she earned her undergraduate degree in 2021 and was recognized in this year’s senior day ceremonies.
3. Maps at point guard
With Henderson heading to the pros, South Carolina’s most glaring area of need is at the point guard position.
It’s likely the Gamecocks’ original plan was to develop Raven Johnson, the No. 1 point guard from the class of 2021, to fully take over with Henderson’s imminent departure. Those plans were shifted after Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of her freshman season.
Johnson has been around South Carolina all through its national championship campaign and has tweeted her dedication to the Gamecocks’ program, though her exact recovery timetable won’t be certain until the 2022-23 season tips off.
When Henderson fell injured for three games last December, Staley opted to play 6-foot-4 junior forward Laeticia Amihere in her position. Amihere did well in Henderson’s place, but Staley wasted little time reloading at the position through the transfer portal after the 2021-22 season’s conclusion.
The Gamecocks secured a commitment from forming Georgia Tech point guard Kierra Fletcher, a senior who redshirted this year due to injury. Fletcher was the Yellow Jackets’ leading scorer in the 2020-21 season and adds a veteran presence at the position to pair with a young and talented Johnson.
4. Scouting the incoming freshmen
The Gamecocks are set to add two top-20 freshmen, both five-stars from the state of South Carolina, to the roster next season.
Columbia native Ashlyn Watkins, a 6-foot-3 forward, is ranked No. 12 by espnW and is the fourth-best post player in the class of 2022. Watkins was named South Carolina’s 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year and will leave Cardinal Newman as the program’s all-time scoring leader (1,740) and rebounder (1,341). She also blocked 366 shots as a high-schooler and led her high school to its last four state championship titles.
Turbeville product Talaysia Cooper is a 6-foot point guard out of East Clarendon High School, ranked No. 18 overall and No. 4 at her position by espnW. She became the sixth girls basketball player in SC High School League history to eclipse 3,000 career points in January and was selected, alongside Watkins, as a McDonald’s All-American.
5. Sophomores, Cardoso poised to break out
The No. 1 recruiting class from 2021 got settled in throughout the Gamecocks’ season.
With a freshman year national championship season under their belts, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Saniya Rivers, Bree Hall and Sania Feagin take on more experienced looks in 2022-23. A healthy Johnson is also expected to see more minutes once she recovers from the knee injury that sidelined her from the second game onward this past season.
Center Kamilla Cardoso transferred from Syracuse for her sophomore year and grew into a solid option off the bench. Staley grew more pleased with Cardoso once she started taking more of her own shots, but Cardoso was a consistent rebounder (third on the team with 5.1 per game) and blocker (third with 46 on the season) all year.
Cardoso scored in double figures six times, including 11 points in a stellar round two game against Miami, which flashed the type of performance the Gamecocks hope to see from her as an upperclassman.
Rivers flashed potential throughout his freshman campaign and frequently received extended minutes on the floor, including a 20-minute game in a Final Four win against Louisville. The 6-foot-1 guard will need to improve upon a 1 of 31 clip from 3-point range in the offseason, but her sheer athleticism provides a solid base to build upon.
Hall emerged as a go-to option behind Beal, making jumps in her first season that saw her play in 36 of 37 games — the most of any USC freshman. The 6-foot guard finished last season with 14 makes from behind the arc, tied for fifth-most on a team not particularly known for its 3-point shot.
Feagin received the fewest minutes of the healthy freshmen due to a crowded South Carolina frontcourt, though she was an efficient scorer when she was on the floor (21 of 34 from the field). The 6-foot-3 forward totaled 10 points with seven rebounds in 14 minutes in the Gamecocks’ NCAA opener against Howard and will look to carve out a larger role as USC prepares for the departures of senior mainstays Saxton and Boston after the 2022-23 season.
Projected roster for 2022-23 South Carolina women’s basketball
Listed with class, position, height and hometown
- Fifth-year senior — Victaria Saxton (F, 6-2) Rome, Ga.
- Fifth-year senior — Kierra Fletcher (G, 5-9) Warren, Mich.
- Senior — Laeticia Amihere (F, 6-4) Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
- Senior — Brea Beal (G, 6-1) Rock Island, Ill.
- Senior—Aliyah Boston (F, 6-5) St. Thomas, USVI
- Senior—Zia Cooke (G, 5-9) Toledo, Ohio
- Senior — Olivia Thompson (G, 5-8) Lexington, SC
- Junior—Kamilla Cardoso (C, 6-7) Montes Claros, Brazil
- Sophomore — Sania Feagin (F, 6-3) Ellenwood, Ga.
- Sophomore—Bree Hall (G, 6-0) Dayton, Ohio
- Sophomore—Raven Johnson (G, 5-8) Atlanta, Ga.
- Sophomore—Saniya Rivers (G, 6-1) Wilmington, NC
- Freshman—Talaysia Cooper (G, 6-0) Turbeville, SC
- Freshman—Ashlyn Watkins (F, 6-3) Columbia, SC