COLUMBIA – Dawn Staley concedes the South Carolina women's basketball season caught her a bit by surprise.
Coming off a season in which the Gamecocks made their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, Staley understood the team had talent, but also understood that three talented starters and team leaders – Iesha Walker, Ashley Bruner and Sancheon White – had to be replaced.
Several things happened to enable the Gamecocks to ascend to the top echelon of women's basketball teams, however.
Junior center Elem Ibiam, who spent more time on the bench than on the court in her first two seasons in Columbia, transformed into a dominant defensive presence and added scoring inside. Her play was so impressive that she was selected to the Southeastern Conference All-Defensive team.
Staley, who had always been forced to put vertically challenged teams on the court, this year was able to pair Ibiam with freshman Alaina Coates.
The former Dutch Fork High All-American, at 6-foot-4, took to the college game like a veteran. Serving as the team's first option off the bench, Coates proved to be to be a polished player on both ends of the court.
The emergence of an inside game allowed Staley to better utilize the talents of Aleighsa Welch.
A 6-0 junior with the ability to play virtually anywhere on the floor, Welch improved her mid-range jump shot and ball-handling skills. She became the player with the ability to carry the team when things were going bad.
More importantly, Welch also became the team's leader on and off the court.
"I remember watching Lisa early in the season," Staley said. "She would talk to players who were struggling and point out where they should be or what they were doing wrong. She has a complete understanding of our system.
"Off the court, she is someone who works hard and that the rest of the team follows."
While Welch served as the team's rock, Tiffany Mitchell was the star power. The sophomore from Charlotte does things that make you shake your head in amazement.
Mitchell was selected Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. Welch was selected to the All-SEC first team.
Coates was the SEC Freshman of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year.
Starting point guard Khadijah Sessions' play was up and down. When she was on her game, the Gamecocks were hard to stop. She struggled mightily in the team's Sweet Sixteen loss to North Carolina, however.
The pieces are in place for the Gamecocks to have a special 2014-15 season. The top nine scorers from 2013-14 return.
Four highly regarded recruits join the Gamecocks, led by McDonald's All-Americans Jatarie White and Bianca Cuevas.
White, from Charlotte, is 6-4 and will add even more of an inside presence. Cuevas is a flashy point guard from the Bronx, N.Y., who should give the Gamecocks another option to run the offense.
Guard Kaydra Duckett, a top 100 national recruit from Columbia, potentially gives USC the outside threat it did not have this past season, while Doniyah Cliney of New Jersey is a considered a defensive stopper on the wing.
The Gamecocks are also in the running for A'ja Wilson, the nation's No. 1 recruit. The Columbia native is expected to make her decision known April 16 on ESPNU.
While North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee join USC as Wilson's final four, many believe it to be a Vols-Gamecocks battle.
Whatever happens, Staley is confidant USC is prepared to reach new heights.
"I feel really good about the future of our program," she said. "We're probably a little bit ahead of schedule from where we thought we would be, but we hope to build on it and continue moving forward."