If the first five minutes of the second quarter of South Carolina’s exhibition game against North Georgia are any indication of how the Gamecocks’ 2019-20 season will go, fans of the Garnet and Black should book hotel and plane reservations for New Orleans.
That would be the site of this season’s Final Four.
Key word: If.
While it’s too soon to anoint anything after an exhibition game and judge anything based on five minutes, it was an impressive stretch nonetheless. And it was freshmen who led the way.
Zia Cooke knocked over a Knighthawk guard, went coast to coast and dropped in a floater. The guard missed an acrobatic attempt moments later, but redshirt-freshman Laeticia Amihere put home a follow. Aliyah Boston then grabbed offensive rebounds on back-to-back possessions and knocked down three free throws during the sequence.
Brea Beal then had her moment — she grabbed a missed 3 and went coast to coast for a layup. Moments later she blocked a shot into the awaiting hands of Boston, who soon after blocked one of her own.
As expected, it was an overall dominant night from the No. 8 Gamecocks. The team routed North Georgia 112-48 and had eight players score in double figures.
Cooke led the way with 18, while Grissett had 16, Amihere had 13, Victaria Saxton had 12 and Boston, Beal and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan each had 11. Boston and Herbert Harrigan also had eight rebounds apiece.
“For me it was like a surreal feeling, because I’ve always watched college basketball,” Cooke said. “For me to be in a college basketball game, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ I was very excited, but at the same time it was surreal for me. I thought I was going to be nervous, but I actually felt comfortable.”
Added Boston, “Once the jump ball happened it was just about playing basketball.”
Even more telling: South Carolina forced 25 turnovers and had 15 steals and 12 blocks. Boston had five of the blocks, while Saxton, Beal and Grissett each had two and Herbert Harrigan had one.
Here are a handful of takeaways from the night:
1) SEC opponents better be ready for Aliyah Boston, who finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and two steals.
The freshman — who started and won the opening tip with ease — dominated the post with her 6-5 frame. It wasn’t more evident than with 30 seconds to go in the third quarter, when she blocked 5-10 North Georgia guard Tija Blackwell, drawing gasps from the Colonial Life Arena crowd.
It was that kind of night for the third overall and top post player in the 2019 class.
“She’s not used to having as much room and one-on-one coverage,” Staley said. “And sometimes that makes you play a little bit quicker. … So she was rushing a little bit, I thought. But in the second half I thought she did a better job taking her time.
“Obviously she does a great job communicating. … She blocks shots. She’s a pretty good defender. I thought she played as well as she could have played for it being her first college game.”
“It felt great. My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball, and I just really worked hard on finishing and getting to the free-throw line,” Boston said.
2) And Cooke.
The 5-9 guard showcased her explosiveness. She grabbed a defensive rebound on an airball early in the fourth quarter and listened to the fan sitting behind press row who said, “Take it all the way.” She did and scored on a similar floater she had multiple times earlier in the game.
“She can do a lot of things with the basketball,” Staley said. “She just can’t do them all at once. But I thought she attacked the rim. I thought she was a great defender, just being really aggressive. … She’s always ready for a challenge.
“… It’s good to have a player on your team that can take over a game at any given time.”
But Cooke wasn’t surprised by her performance. What she was surprised by was the Gamecocks’ point total.
“That was the most surprising thing for me because it just happened so quick,” she said. “I looked up and I’m like, ‘Wow, we’re already at 100.’”
3) And Beal, who finished with 11 points, two rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 20 minutes. Staley said she thought the 6-1 Beal, who started the second half, “Did a great job with what she brought to the table.”
“Does it matter if she starts or not? No, not for her,” the coach said. “She knows how to play the game. She understands what her worth is and she’s always ready when he number’s called.”
4) South Carolina scored 70 points in the post.
“That’s always the focus for every team,” Staley said. “... But now we’ve got post play. ... We’ve got post players that will probably shoot in the upper 50 [percent] from the floor.
“We also have to know that we have those bigs in the back of our pockets because we can score in the paint at will when we want to.”
5) Three point guards?
South Carolina started three traditional point guards: Harris, Henderson and Cooke.
“I like the camaraderie that they have. I like their ability to put a lot of pressure on the basketball,” Staley said. “… Zia’s explosive off the dribble. Destanni can knock down standstill shots. We’d like for her to get a little more aggressive with the ball just so we’re keeping everybody honest.
“But it’s evolving. We’ve got capable players that we can insert at any time.”
“I really love playing with them. They keep me motivated and help me go harder,” Cooke said. “They’re just great leaders, so I go behind them and I follow what they do. It’s helping me become a leader as well.”