Editor’s note: This article will appear in the upcoming January Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe to our monthly publication, click here.
By Josh Hyber/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
A torn ACL, a transfer from Tennessee followed by a season on the bench and an inconsistent start to non-conference play — it all came to a head for Te’a Cooper on the morning of Jan. 2.
“I went through a little slump and I was in my own head,” Cooper told Spurs & Feathers. “I was dealing with my knee and, you know, had stuff going on and wasn’t really being myself.
“I didn’t feel like I was doing what I know I can do.”
So for 15 minutes after South Carolina’s practice that afternoon, the senior guard and Dawn Staley met in the head coach’s office. Staley’s message was simple: Free your mind, have fun, enjoy the game and, in Cooper’s words, “just be a killer.”
Said the senior, “That’s what I went out and did.”
Two days later, on the road against No. 21 Texas A&M, Cooper scored 24 points (12 in the third quarter) on 7-of-18 shooting, including two free-throws in the final seconds to seal a three-point win. She also notched career highs in rebounds (seven) and assists (six), hit 9-of-11 free-throws and, oh yeah, defended Aggie star guard Chennedy Carter for most of the night.
“There are very few players that have the offensive prowess as Te’a Cooper, that embrace the challenge of playing someone that’s very talented like Chennedy Carter,” Staley said the next day. “… They want to outscore them, but they don’t want to shut them down.
“Te’a took on that [challenge]. That’s her personality.”
Through the first two games of conference play, Cooper was averaging a team-high 12.6 points and was the Gamecocks’ leading scorer in seven of 14 games.
But her play was inconsistent: She led the team in scoring in four of its first six games but was fourth on the team in scoring against East Tennessee State and fifth against Dayton. She dropped 31 points against Drake but just two against Purdue.
She had four points against Furman on Dec. 30.
Then came the chat with Staley, something she agreed was more common than some made it out to be.
“Problems can get solved very simply just with communication,” Staley said. “And a small amount of communication. I thought Te’a took it well. I guess she released the kind of pressure that was on her. I wish we would have had that conversation a lot sooner.”
The coach mentioned Cooper’s aggressive style of play, and that she was struggling a bit getting Gamecock forward Alexis Jennings — who herself was getting healthier in her return from injury — involved.
“That doesn’t mean [Te’a] has to sacrifice her aggressiveness and her ability to score and attack and shoot the basketball,” Staley said. “I want her to be dynamic. I want her to, when it’s there, pass it into the post. But when it’s there for her to do what she did at the beginning of the season, continue to do that.”
Not to mention Cooper is playing this season after sitting out the previous two, the first one with an ACL injury and the second due to transfer rules.
“The only thing that was a struggle was I wasn’t on a team, so I didn’t have a role,” Cooper said. “I was just playing freely. There are a little more consequences when you’re playing and there aren’t wins and losses.”
Cooper takes positives from the time she spent not playing. She took time to learn about herself. She built relationships with her teammates.
“I got to learn how to step outside of myself and understand someone else’s reality and that may not be what my reality is sometimes,” Cooper said. “How I see something is maybe not how they see it. What I could be upset or feel some type of way about, wasn’t even their intentions. I learned a lot about that, and just being understanding.”
She read books, including “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.
“That was pretty awesome. [I learned that] you can love someone, but how they want to be loved is the only thing that matters,” she said. “It won’t be the same if you love them the way you want to love.”
She also read one called “How To Listen.”
“It wasn’t as simple as you would think,” she said. “You have to listen from someone else’s point of view. You can’t listen from your own. … And I learned how to talk so people listen to you.”
Cooper wants to be dependable. Consistent for her teammates and coaches on and off the court.
But until the game in College Station, Texas, it had been an up-and-down season.
“I haven’t played in two years so I’m still kind of getting back into the swing of things,” Cooper said. “I’m still trying to figure out how to be consistent. I’m learning along the way.”
That includes her style of play. Is she a score-first guard? A pass-first guard? By early January, Cooper led the team is assists in games against Maryland, Texas A&M and Alabama.
It doesn’t matter to the Powder Springs, Ga. native and 2016 SEC All-Freshman team honoree.
“I think I can do both, it’s just a matter of having that balance in the game, knowing when I need to be more aggressive or when I need to be more passive,” Cooper said. “Sitting out, it’s easy to just play basketball. But knowing how to play it with other people in a system is harder. Playing defense and rotating.”
Said Staley after the Alabama win, “Te’a has always been one that’s very confident. I think she’s a really, really aggressive defender and competitor.”