When South Carolina women’s basketball opens the regular season on Tuesday against Alabama State, the spotlight will mostly focus on the celebrated Gamecock freshman class.
By now, the hype and talk around Dawn Staley’s rookies are well-known — four prospects ranked in the top 15 of their class by ESPN, three McDonald’s All-Americans, more than a few viral moments, a local star and a strong showing in USC’s exhibition game last Friday.
“I think they were a little nervous at the beginning of our exhibition, and I think they’ll be a little bit more nervous with this game counting as a regular season game. And then we’ll have some fans in here that will make them a little more nervous. So it’s gonna take some time for them to play in front of a crowd, play in front of a big crowd, and for them the excitement of starting their college careers,” coach Dawn Staley said.
While the youngsters can celebrate the start of their careers and seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan will begin their final run with the team, junior LeLe Grissett will come in searching for a new beginning of sorts.
Grissett was a top prospect in her own recruiting class too — ranked No. 23 by ESPN, No. 25 by Prospects Nation — but through two seasons, she has yet to establish herself as a regular on the floor. After averaging 4.2 points and 13.3 minutes per game as a freshman, her numbers dropped slightly as a sophomore. Then came the announcement this summer from Staley that the 6-foot-2 Grissett would be switching from forward to guard.
“I think LeLe probably wanted to play more guard for us in the beginning of her career. Just the timing wasn’t right; we have a lot of guards in the past two or three years that she’s been here, and this year we knew coming in we’d have a lot of post players,” Staley explained. “So, the work that she put in in the offseason has been great. Her ability to embrace criticism and just improvement has helped her growth tremendously. She doesn’t fight us anymore, she’s open. She’s texting me, ‘I want to get better at playing the guard position, so help me.’ When a player’s expressing that, they want to get better, and you can see how much she’s improved.”
Fans saw it in Friday’s exhibition against North Georgia — coming off the bench, Grissett scored 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, collecting five rebounds, four steals and two blocks in 22 minutes.
“I think Lele is just a really good work in progress. This is a great game for her to just build on,” Staley said afterward. “I thought she made some great decisions out there on the floor like when to post up. The offensive rebounding is her thing, but defensively, I just think she moved like a guard out there, and that’s the thing that’s probably come the hardest for her, to be able to lock in and defend on the perimeter. But I thought she did extremely well.”
The move from slightly undersized forward to oversized guard has required a complete change in mindset. And even though the season is now officially here, Grissett doesn’t think that change or transition is completely over.
“It’s been kind of smooth. Coach has been helping me and guiding me on the way through, my teammates have been helping me, so a smooth transition,” Grissett said. “I’m just learning more things, and as we keep playing, I’ll just keep learning everything at the guard spot.”
But she is thinking like a guard. Asked what she’s seen from Alabama State, who the Gamecocks are expected to beat comfortably, on film, one of her first notes was how well the Hornets’ backcourt hits the boards
Their guards are active rebounders, so we gotta box out,” Grissett said.
That shouldn’t be a problem with her size. And as she proved against North Georgia, she can also step out and drill the occasional 3-pointer — she had one of just two makes from beyond the arc for USC in the exhibition. Asked whether the Gamecocks’ guards can repeat their performance from last year’s season opener against Alabama State, when Carolina made 10 3s, she smiled.
“Oh yeah, 3-point team. We’re just gonna keep shooting them and making them, we’ve been practicing,” Grissett said.
GAMECOCK FAN ESSENTIALS
Who: No. 8 South Carolina vs. Alabama State
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Watch: Streaming online on SEC Network Plus via WatchESPN
Listen: 107.5 FM in Columbia