COLUMBIA – Dawn Staley has always been quick to check folks she feels are disrespecting her program, chiding national media for not giving South Carolina the credit it deserves for winning the national championship. She’s also never been shy about calling out the NCAA for some of its decisions, grumbling last year that it was unfair for USC to be sent across the country to play in the Sweet 16 when it could have been much closer to home.
These days she’s hoping the NCAA will do her, and her team, a solid.
The loss of Bianca Cuevas-Moore to a knee injury has the No. 4 Gamecocks short-handed and the NCAA can help that. USC has filed a hardship waiver to the NCAA on behalf of Te’a Cooper, who transferred to the Gamecocks from Tennessee during the offseason.
“I believe it has,” Staley said Tuesday, before her team left for Philadelphia and a Thursday game at Temple. “I think it was submitted yesterday or today.”
USC is hoping the NCAA will override its transfer policy and let Cooper suit up immediately. The rule says that transferring players have to sit out the next season. Staley’s argument to bypass that has two points.
Cooper has already sat out a season, since she blew out a knee before the 2016-17 season began and sat on the Lady Vols’ bench all last year. While recovered and able to practice with USC, she also sat out this year’s first semester (and 11 games) to get acclimated to Columbia, USC and her schoolwork. If the NCAA is truly about the “student-athlete experience,” USC is arguing, Cooper has already done time on the bench and shouldn’t be punished again.
“She’ll lose a year of eligibility if she sits out another year,” Staley said. “She’ll only have one year to play.”
The second and most important point has to do with the NCAA’s set precedent. While the NCAA has notoriously never made a habit of following its precedents (numerous examples, but the latest is Northern Colorado basketball being hammered for academic impropriety while North Carolina went scot-free), there’s a very recent case that is similar to USC’s.
Nebraska star Jessica Shepard transferred to Notre Dame over the offseason and like all transfers, was expected to sit out a year. But the NCAA cleared her to immediately play this season on a hardship waiver.
Neither the NCAA nor Notre Dame said exactly what the hardship was, only that Shepard could play. It may be just coincidental that the Fighting Irish were belted with several injuries before the season began and really needed an impact starting forward, like, say, Shepard. She is the Irish’s second-leading scorer, top rebounder, the reigning ACC Player of the Week and scored 10 points against USC in the Gamecocks’ only loss this year.
The Gamecocks are in the same pickle as Notre Dame. Cuevas-Moore is out for the season, there’s no telling when Lindsey Spann may return from her own knee injury and USC could really use an impact starting guard, like, say, Cooper. USC chose to sit Cooper for the first semester but with finals over and grades posted, the waiver has been submitted.
“Hopefully they’ll see that and hopefully they’ll see that we got a player down and another one’s kind of limping her way back,” Staley said. “I hope they just consider all of it because I think they’ve probably considered all of that in some other cases.”
Staley is hoping for a quick decision. Cooper is not traveling to Temple, but if the NCAA cleared Cooper Tuesday, USC would work to get Cooper on a plane to join the team. If not, there’s a 10-day break after Thursday before the Gamecocks begin conference play.
“They say it’s a pretty quick process. It could be a day or two,” Staley said. “If she gets cleared today, then we’ll probably get her a flight out. If the NCAA works that fast, during this time of the season, we’ll be quick to pull the trigger and get her to Philly.”
Notre Dame was sent to Lexington, Ky., for the past two NCAA Regionals over USC due to the NCAA’s rules judging that South Bend to Lexington is a bus ride and Columbia to Lexington isn’t. That was following the organization’s rulebook.
Clearing Shepard to play didn’t. Transfers are supposed to sit a year and a seemingly arbitrary decision overruled it.
Staley wants a repeat.