COLUMBIA — The text messages popped up on her cell phone, tucked away in South Carolina’s locker room. They remained there for her to read after games, when their context made little sense, but their overall message remained clear as ever.
“Why didn’t you take that shot?”
Those were the things Aleighsa Welch’s older brother, Ernesto, texted her during games this season — whenever he saw her hesitate to attempt the mid-range jump shot that they spent hours last summer trying to perfect.
A physical post player since her days at Goose Creek High, Welch knew she would need to expand her offensive skills this season. The Gamecocks lost their top two scorers from last season’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 team, on which Welch was a 6-foot freshman forward who averaged 7.6 points, fourth on the squad.
Coach Dawn Staley’s message to Welch when they met after last season: “You’re going to have to play a bigger role next year. You’re going to have to be a scorer.”
Defense remains the Gamecocks’ best asset entering today’s NCAA tournament opener against South Dakota State in Boulder, Colo. But USC’s sparse scoring only makes Welch’s offensive growth more valuable, even if she remains a post player at heart.
She leads USC with 12 points per game, and while she attempts just 6.6 shots per game (1.5 more than last year), she is an efficient scorer who makes 60.7 percent of them.
Her best games came against two of USC’s toughest opponents. Against top-ranked Stanford, she shot 7 of 10 and scored 17 points. Versus No. 13 Georgia, she shot 8 of 10 and scored 19 points. USC lost those games by four and two points, respectively, but Welch proved her worth.
Most of her points still come on high-percentage shots from the paint. Yet Staley has noticed the mid-range jumper emerging.
“She finally is comfortable shooting the mid-range shot,” Staley said. “It’s something that she’s pretty good at. She just doesn’t shoot it enough. She likes contact, so she likes to drive and force people to body her up. But I think if she can balance hitting the mid-range and putting the ball on the floor and getting to the basket, she’ll be a really hard (player to) guard.”
Welch was primarily a rebounder last season, when she averaged a team-best 6.1. This season, she averages 7.7, second to Ashley Bruner’s 7.9. Rebounding wasn’t an issue for Welch entering last summer. Developing a jump shot was.
She honed it at Goose Creek with her old coach, Tim Baldwin. Her former AAU coaches also helped. But Ernesto was her most vocal mentor. A 2008 Goose Creek graduate who lives in Greenville, he returned home or drove to Columbia to meet Welch for shooting time. He specialized in outside shooting in high school and relished passing his passion to his little sister.
Said Welch: “He was just saying, ‘Listen, we’re going to go into the gym, and we’re going to shoot until you don’t want to shoot anymore. And even when you don’t want to shoot, we’re still going to shoot.’ ”
Welch, a former state high school player of the year, guessed she took a jump shot “maybe twice” last season, when she continued to enjoy bumping in the post. Still, she understood that when USC found itself in a faster-paced, finesse game, “I can’t look to initiate that contact.”
“This year, it was just a matter of: If they’re going to leave me open, take it,” she said. “I probably haven’t taken it as much as I’ve wanted to, and that’s just because I’m really trying to pick and choose my spots. But I know I have to be more aggressive.”
That has never been a problem for Welch, who estimated that she had a size advantage in the post against just five opponents all season. Even as she gains comfort farther from the basket, she leans on an assertive mentality for her continued success down low, as a rebounder and scorer.
“All of it is a pride thing,” she said. “It’s a ‘you’re not going to come in here and just beat me up’ type of thing. You have to have that type of pride when you’re not the biggest person on the court, because I feel like, in some cases, when you have somebody (on the other team) who is 6-5, they’re thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to have a field day with this one today.’ Yeah, you can’t come in there with that mindset against me.”