South Carolina has pieces to make repeat run at women’s basketball title

South Carolina women’s basketball is coming off its best season in history. The Gamecocks were ranked No. 1 in the country wire-to-wire and capped a 36-2 campaign with the program’s second NCAA national championship.

The pressure to defend the title is high and with four of five starters returning and several exciting new pieces, there are increased expectations and pressure. South Carolina was an overwhelming choice at No. 1 in the USA TODAY Sports preseason poll.

Repeating in women’s college basketball hasn’t been easy.  No team has won back-to-back national championships since Connecticut’s four-year streak from 2013-2016, and the last non-Connecticut team to win consecutive titles was Tennessee in 2007 and 2008.

Optimism for this season’s possibilities starts with senior forward Aliyah Boston. She is not just the top returner for South Carolina: She’s the top returner in women’s college basketball. Boston, the consensus national player of the year last season, already holds 21 program records, including two career records after just three seasons. 

Last season, she averaged a double-double with 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, plus 2.4 blocks. Her stats were even better during the Final Four run, where she averaged 17 points and 17 rebounds. She led the SEC in rebounds per game and in field goal percentage shooting 54.2%.

The notable loss for the Gamecocks is guard Destanni Henderson, who now plays for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. Henderson was essential on the tournament, leading the team in scoring with 18.5 points per game during the Final Four. She was the team’s No. 2 scorer during the regular season behind Boston and led the starters in 3-pointers, shooting nearly 40% from beyond the arc. Zia Cooke, the team’s third-leading scorer, could pick up some of the slack caused by Henderson’s departure.

The leading candidates for Henderson’s spot are both relative newcomers. Redshirt freshman Raven Johnson appeared in two games last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury . Johnson was the No. 1 point guard prospect in the country out of high school, so the expectations are high for her coming out of recovery.

The other option is Kierra Fletcher, a graduate transfer from Georgia Tech. Fletcher redshirted the 2021-22 season because of a foot injury but was the Yellow Jackets’ No. 2 scorer in 2020-21, averaging 13 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.

Kamilla Cardoso could be the team’s breakout player. She had a somewhat underwhelming  season, averaging 5.4 points, 5.1 rebounds per game last year after her freshman season at Syracuse, where she was the first player in program history to win ACC freshman of the year. With a season at South Carolina under her belt, Cardoso is poised to have a breakout season with Gamecocks.

The 6-7 center played second fiddle behind Boston, and while that will still be true this year, opponents have a full season’s worth of film to game plan for the Gamecocks’ star, which could open up space for Cardoso to get touches. 

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has put together another difficult non-conference schedule that includes No. 2 Stanford, No. 6 Connecticut, No. 18 Maryland and No. 24 South Dakota State. The matchup against the Cardinal is a renewal of a budding rivalry between two of the most prolific programs in women’s basketball. In 2022, the Gamecocks beat Stanford 65-61 in Columbia during the regular season, and both teams went on to reach the Final Four in the NCAA tournament. This time South Carolina will travel west. 

This game also contains two of the most exciting players in college basketball in Boston and Stanford guard Haley Jones. Both are projected top 5 picks in the 2023 WNBA Draft, and Jones was a finalist for the Naismith Trophy that Boston won last season.

In the SEC, there is no matchup more important this season than No. 4 Tennessee. The Gamecocks travels to Knoxville for a game that will almost certainly decide the No. 1 team in the SEC. South Carolina handled the Lady Vols in 2022 with a 67-53 victory at Colonial Life Arena, but Tennessee was reeling from the season-ending injury of leading scorer Jordan Horston, which she sustained the game before facing South Carolina.

The Lady Vols also reloaded in a big way during the offseason, adding standout Mississippi State transfer Rickea Jackson and Georgia transfer Jillian Hollingshead. With Horston healthy, Tennessee is the biggest threat to beat South Carolina in the conference.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY