COLUMBIA — Freshmen earn their places, no matter how highly regarded they are. Even A’ja Wilson only started one game her first year.
So Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton, each a Top-50 freshman for No. 12 South Carolina this year, were prepared to wait. They were getting limited minutes in games and had a combined five starts, all by Henderson.
That may be changing. As much as coach Dawn Staley tinkered and rotated with her lineups before settling on one for most SEC games, she may have to switch it again.
Because without Henderson and Saxton playing like they did Sunday at Arkansas, the Gamecocks would be heading into Thursday’s home game against Ole Miss off a loss and with a sizable dent in their SEC regular-season championship hopes. USC scored a stellar 35 points in the fourth quarter to vanquish the Razorbacks after sputtering through the first three, and the two rookies were the biggest reason why.
“These freshmen have been working in practice. They have been our scout team when our (men’s practice squad was) home during their semester break,” Staley told the SEC Network following the 87-79 win. “They have just been working. Really proud of them for being ready when their number was called.”
Saxton had been there in doses, stuck behind Alexis Jennings and all-SEC performer Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. She supplied relentless energy when she got on the court, and had pulled eight rebounds in 13 minutes against Vanderbilt.
Henderson? She was a guard, and USC is overflowing with guards. As much as Staley liked her game, and had her in the starting five at one point, the season often required someone with a little more experience on the floor, someone who had proven they could get to the basket.
Arkansas was faster, shooting better and seemed to want it more than USC for three quarters on Sunday. The Gamecocks, needing to stay one game behind Mississippi State in the standings, were getting inconsistent play from the veterans who were supposed to be leading.
The olds weren’t getting it done, maybe news would. With USC trailing four points as the fourth quarter began, why not?
Henderson scored five straight points, around a layup from Arkansas’ Chelsea Dungee, who cooked USC for 32 points. Saxton, after feeding Henderson on a 3-pointer, blocked the shot of Raven Northcross-Baker and watched it become a carom to Doniyah Cliney, who passed to Ty Harris for USC’s first lead.
Henderson assisted Harris on a 3-pointer to retake the lead for good, and Saxton scored inside, got a defensive rebound and put back Bianca Cuevas-Moore’s miss. Henderson hit another 3, Saxton scored four points with two offensive rebounds and another block, then Henderson converted a three-point play.
The two combined for three free throws as USC pulled away and each wound up with a career-high 19 points. Henderson had 12 points in the fourth, Saxton 10 with four boards and two blocks.
“When you’re in Rome, you do as the Romans, and that’s what our young players are doing now. They’re feeling this conference out,” Staley said. “When you can give your team a boost on any given night, I’m encouraged, our coaching staff is encouraged and hopefully that will give those young players a boost of confidence.”
Henderson and Saxton may have boosted themselves into much heavier roles. After Arkansas, no doubt they can handle them.