CHARLOTTE — Te’a Cooper transferred to South Carolina for opportunities like this.
She grinded and gutted her way through rehabilitation of a torn left ACL and a waited and willed herself through a season on the bench because of NCAA transfer rules — 957 days in all — just to get on the court for the Gamecocks.
But the 957 falls shy of another long gap in Cooper’s basketball career: Friday, when the No. 4 seed Gamecocks (21-9) take on No. 13 seed Belmont (26-6) at Halton Arena, it will be 1,090 days since Cooper last played an NCAA Tournament game.
As a freshman at Tennessee, Cooper and her team fell to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. Even as a spectator, she has not been back since.
“Now we’re back and I’m finally here,” the junior said Thursday. “… I’m just glad to be here. For the seniors, this is their last go-around, so we’re just trying to get them everything we’ve got.”
Cooper — SC’s leading scorer (11.9 ppg) who earned second-team All-SEC from league coaches this season — will be a key component in that effort, especially since the 5-8 guard has thrived this season against the best teams on the Gamecock schedule.
She averaged 16.7 points per game in the team’s nine games against ranked opponents, a number that increases to 18.6 if one takes out the two points in four minutes she had against Kentucky on Feb. 21.
“Her focus is a lot different when there’s a number in front of a team,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “How we get her to channel that every single night is a challenge.
“But it’s Tournament time. … I think she’s chomping at the bit to get back to playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
The aforementioned game against Kentucky ended prematurely for Cooper because she sprained her left ankle — an injury that forced her to miss the Gamecocks’ next two games. She returned to play just 15 minutes in the team’s regular-season finale and 16 minutes in the team’s SEC Tournament loss to Arkansas.
“[But now] I feel very refreshed. I have no aches and pains,” Cooper said Thursday. “My ankle is fully recovered, so I’m good.”
“I think Te’a is looking the healthiest as she has [since] prior to her injury,” Staley said. “A lot of people didn’t take into consideration that she was unhealthy and hobbling a little bit [in the SEC Tournament]. But she fought through.
“Us practicing maybe half of the week last week gave her the rest and time she needed to physically recover, but also mentally. When you’re injured and you’re not at full strength, it plays with you mentally. But I think she’s in a great place mentally and physically.”
“I’m back,” she said. “I’m excited.”
South Carolina will see the return of freshman forward Victaria Saxton, who missed the SEC Tournament due to a death in her family. Saxton, an SEC All-Freshman team honoree, has averaged 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds per game this season.
“We missed her. She’s a player that could have been a difference maker for us against Arkansas,” Staley said. “But it’s great to have her back. She’ll, one day, be our captain. That is how stable and solid she is. She always says the right things. She’s a hard worker. She’s a quick learner. I mean, she’s a tremendous rebounder. I think the sky’s the limit. I think she’s excited to play in her first NCAA Tournament. Hopefully she’ll play like the Victaria we all know.”