COLUMBIA — Better late than never.
Really better late than never.
South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley brightened the Gamecocks' 2018-19 outlook Tuesday by saying fifth-year forward Alexis Jennings would return after two months of mystery. The question of whether Jennings would go pro or simply leave USC and quit the game altogether was at last answered.
“Alexis is practicing, she’s doing well and she’s fully committed,” Staley said.
The question seemed answered when Jennings — who has one year of eligibility remaining after transferring from Kentucky, sitting out the 2016-17 season and then playing last year — did not submit her name for the WNBA Draft. Yet she never declared she was coming back, team sources saying in late May that Jennings was taking her time to decide while finishing school.
Jennings graduated on May 11 and told The Post and Courier that she still hadn’t made a decision because all of her focus was on obtaining her degree. But the gnawed fingernails will have a chance to grow back now, as Staley made it clear that Jennings will return.
The decision gives the Gamecocks a vital low-post presence to balance a team that will run through its guards. USC’s No. 2 scorer (11.4) and rebounder (6.6) behind National Player of the Year A’ja Wilson last season, Jennings will be a formidable obstacle for opponents to plan for and clear defenses that could have swarmed over the Gamecocks’ plethora of guards.
“Alexis is the one that comes back with the most experience and she’s doing Alexis things. She’s rebounding the ball, I don’t think we have anybody that really can defend her this summer,” Staley said. “Her brute strength is hard for any of our young post players to guard at this point, but we’re working Alexis so that she can counter her low-post presence so she can hit a mid-range jump shot and out to 3.”
Jennings was always steady and sometimes spectacular last year, scoring in double figures 20 times and recording double-doubles six times. Her 19-point, 12-board performance against Tennessee in USC’s first SEC tournament game allowed Wilson to ease back onto the court after missing a game due to vertigo, and the Gamecocks used that springboard to win their next two games and a fourth straight SEC tournament championship.
USC has two scholarships to fill for next season and could always add another player. The Gamecocks are in the mix for Texas A&M graduate transfer Anriel Howard, who will finish school by early August and then decide on her new team.
As long as Howard or anyone else enrolls at USC by Aug. 23, the first day of fall classes, they will be eligible to play this year.
All accounted for
Staley said that all of her new players — freshmen Elysa Wesolek, Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton, plus graduate transfer Nelly Perry — have arrived.
“Everyone’s on campus, everyone’s been in workouts for the past month. I’m encouraged by what we see every day,” Staley said. “There’s improvement from everyone. We’re in a good place.”
The Cuevas-Moore situation
Staley also explained how Bianca Cuevas-Moore was going to graduate and transfer to West Virginia but then changed her mind for a final year at USC. Staley congratulated Cuevas-Moore at her graduation and sensed a lot of hesitation when asking her if she was ready to move on.
The two had a sit-down, talked about being comfortable and making good decisions, and agreed that Cuevas-Moore would be better off with the Gamecocks. After knee surgery in February, Cuevas-Moore may not be ready for the start of the season but should suit up soon after.
Staley’s obligations as coach of Team USA will have her away from the Gamecocks from Sept. 2 through Oct. 2. Associate head coach Lisa Boyer will travel with Staley to training camp, then to Spain for the World Cup Olympic qualifier.
Assistant coaches Fred Chmiel and Jolette Law will be in charge of the team during Staley’s absence.