The South Carolina women's basketball team will embark on their journey to the Final Four without one of their star floor generals in Alaina Coates. But her unfortunate absence may give this team extra focus on making a run to the Final Four and possibly a national championship.
Head coach Dawn Staley confirmed that Coates, a four time All-SEC first teamer, will miss the NCAA tournament due to an ankle injury. She said it was tough conversation to have with Coates days before the big dance but it's a part of the game. Ultimately Coates' future outweighed the next couple of weeks for the senior.
"Ending your career with an injury is tough. But she's going to have a long career and be able to provide for her family," Staley said in USC's Thursday press conference.
So the onus now goes on SEC Player of the Year A'ja Wilson and a host of teammates that will need to do even more. Wilson said she will need to focus on how aggressive she plays defensively because she can't afford to get into foul trouble.
Another element of the game everyone will need to contribute is rebounding. Staley said the biggest void left by Coates injury will be in the rebounding department. Look for Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray to help Wilson out on the glass throughout the tournament.
Staley also believes USC can be more versatile on both sides of the ball. With Coates out it'll give guards like Tyasha Harris, Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Donyiah Cliney driving lanes and more spacing for three point shots for the sniper they have in Gray. We may also see more full court pressing defensively as well.
Freshman Keke Herbert-Harrigan will so see big minutes but she already has. She had two huge games in the SEC tournament when Coates was sidelined. She started in the quarterfinals and grabbed a career high 10 rebounds. She followed that up with a career high 17 points in the semifinals. With those performances under her belt in big games Gamecock fans will be pleased to see an even more confident freshman game by game of the tournament.
The Gamecocks open the NCAAs at home against UNC-Asheville, the Big South Champions. Davis said she was impressed on how hard the team plays despite being a 16 seed. This is the first NCAA tournament for Davis on a team that is a number one seed. Wilson has been there done that and she believes her teammates have what it takes to take down Asheville and keep getting close to the Final Four. She was in one as freshman.
"The thing that takes the most is discipline and heart. Just playing with heart will take us a long way," Wilson said.
Although the team may be playing with a heavy heart at time as Coates watches from the sidelines. But that fact could give them the strength to give their opponents heartbreak round by round.
It all starts tonight against UNC-Asheville. Tip-off is 5 pm ET at Colonial Life Arena.s