COLUMBIA - Dawn Staley believes South Carolina can continue to build on the success the women's basketball program has had because of the foundation that All-American A'ja Wilson leaves behind.
The 6-foot-5 Wilson, the three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year who became the school's career leading in points, blocks and rebounds this season, is graduating. Her departure creates a huge void Staley will have to fill after South Carolina's season ended with a disheartening 94-65 drubbing against undefeated UConn in the regional finals Monday night.
"There won't be a whole lot of A'ja Wilsons left in our game," Staley said. "I'm just really fortunate that I got a chance to coach her for four years."
That doesn't mean Staley's expectations for the program will be any different.
But without Wilson - the likely national player of the year - South Carolina might have to take a step back after winning its fourth straight league tournament title earlier this month.
Wilson was the last of South Carolina's big four that included Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray who helped drive the Gamecocks to four consecutive SEC regular season titles from 2014-17. Now, it will be a new-look group who'll have to carry Staley's program forward.
Point guard Tyasha Harris and forward Alexis Jennings, if she remains, will have to take another leap forward for that to happen.
Harris was a freshman starter on South Carolina's national title team who had the luxury of riches when passing to scorers all over the floor that season. She will have to find someone other than Wilson (who made 58 percent of her shots this past season) to become a reliable scorer next year.
Jennings, the 6-3 Kentucky transfer, averaged 11 points a game this season, but often had stretches filled with missed shots and inconsistent performances. Jennings had seven points in the NCAA Tournament opener against North Carolina A&T, then just two rebounds in 22 minutes in the next win over Virginia.
Jennings could opt to go pro instead of return. She said Monday she has not decided what she'll do.
South Carolina's most consistent young player was freshman guard Bianca Jackson, who played 30 minutes a game and led the Gamecocks with 41 3-pointers.
South Carolina expected to be more productive from the outside, but shooting guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore missed all season with a knee injury and Penn State grad transfer Lindsey Spann played only 15 games because of knee problems.
A wild card for next year's team is Tennessee transfer Te'a Cooper. The Gamecocks were denied a waiver by the NCAA to get Cooper on the court this season and she's spent the year practicing and preparing. Cooper made the coaches' all-SEC freshman team two seasons ago before sitting out 2016-17 with a knee injury.
A healthy Cooper could perk up South Carolina's scoring prospects.
The Gamecocks have a pair of top-50 recruits for next season in point guard Destanni Henderson of Florida, and 6-1 forward Victaria Sexton of Georgia.
Staley will have her hands full molding the new group - all of it without Wilson.
Even with Wilson, Staley said the team had its doubters along the way during its run to the Elite Eight.
The Gamecocks did stumble this past season as players who were expected to fill roles after the Gamecocks national championship never really found their place around Wilson. That led to the Gamecocks (29-7) getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament earlier than they had hoped.
Still, Staley took pride in what her team accomplished when she said many expected the Gamecocks to fall off after their title run.
"They just played it out and we just found ourselves in a place in which only us believed that we could be," Staley said.
Now the work begins to get back there again next year.
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