COLUMBIA — Four players left within 24 hours and nobody’s said a word since, so there must be something amiss, right?
It doesn’t look good, surely, but an eyebrow-raising situation and a program on the rocks are several basketball courts apart.
“Sometimes things like this come up because everybody isn’t happy and everybody wants to play,” former South Carolina point guard Khadijah Sessions said. “We’re going to be fine. This is South Carolina, baby.”
That’s much of what made the news of last week so shocking. That it was South Carolina, one of the top women's programs over the past eight years, having four players transfer. Two of the four just want to play instead of riding the bench, but the others are starters. And one of them is Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, a junior who will have to sit out next season before playing her final season of college ball.
Her reason for leaving coincides with Te’a Cooper’s — it’s not a good fit anymore. LaDazhia Williams and Bianca Jackson want to play and they probably weren’t going to play at USC, so it makes sense for them to leave.
Individually, all have reasons. But when they all left together, it’s a worry, right?
“I don’t call it the transfer portal, I call it the teleportal,” said Debbie Antonelli, a college basketball television analyst who lives in Mount Pleasant. “Because kids think they’re going to teleport out of there into Disney.”
Antonelli exasperatedly shared what she views as problems with the game. Players have too much freedom and the NCAA helps feed that entitlement.
Transfers in women’s basketball aren’t rare but the creation of the NCAA transfer portal has seen an uptick. It’s totally up to the player now if they want to enter it, and they can put their name in at any time and not have to tell their coach about it.
“The kids are in charge. They know exactly what they’re doing,” Antonelli said. “They can graduate in three years, then transfer wherever they want and get a graduate degree. Three schools in your college career isn’t a big deal anymore. I think we have major hemorrhaging that we’re trying to stop with a Band-Aid.”
There are an estimated 400 to 500 names in the women’s transfer portal and USC is far from the only school with multiple transfers. Presented with an easy way out and a chance to experience the love of the recruiting cycle all over again, players sticking it out with one school and earning a place on the court is becoming a foreign concept.
“It’s sweat equity,” said Antonelli, who played at N.C. State. “If you’ve ever competed on a team, you know much joy that comes from succeeding and how hard you have to work for it. When you’re in the trenches with your teammates, when you’re all fighting for the same goal.
“Now, you don’t do that. You can just leave.”
She was one of the most dynamic players the state of South Carolina had ever seen. Sessions was a magician with the ball, scoring over 3,000 points for Myrtle Beach High.
She was one of several talented freshmen who came to a USC team fresh off a Sweet 16 berth in Dawn Staley’s breakthrough season, and of course expected to play. She did, playing in every game.
But there were bumps along the way for the young star. It became apparent to Sessions early in practice that while the Gamecocks liked her ability to score, they weren’t going to depend on it. She was part of five, not the one among five.
“I had a rough patch my whole first preseason. At the end of the day, I took all the information in and understood it was out of love,” Sessions said. “She (Staley) wanted to make sure we could perform as a team in front of 18,000 fans and on national TV. It was a struggle being that All-American in high school, but I had to take into account how good we could be as a team.”
Sessions never averaged more than eight points a game in four years, but she was the starting point guard her last three seasons. USC lost a combined 10 games in that stretch, reaching the Final Four her senior year.
There were transfers coming in and transfers going out in those years, too. But the ones who stayed, who bought into Staley’s system, were part of the rise into a nationally respected program.
Everybody couldn’t play equal minutes because there was so much talent on the roster. Nobody cared when they were cutting down nets.
“Coach is hard but she’s not that hard. It’s a shock to me that people are leaving,” Sessions said. “When you sign your letter, all the coaches are going to have rules and directions to follow. You got to be able to handle the rules and do the right thing.”
It’s a sign of the program’s stability that the Gamecocks made the Sweet 16 this season and it was considered a down year. USC knew it would not look the same without National Player of the Year A’ja Wilson, but thought it could restructure, tweak the offensive and defensive systems and arrive near the same place.
“When you look at the inexperience of players who had to make an impact for us consistently, the depth of our roster, the injuries at the beginning of the season, it was just hard to build that chemistry,” Staley said.
USC had talent, but without a cohesive unit on the floor, it couldn’t show. Staley switched rotations throughout the season, some caused by injury, but never had that one set look that drew a line and said, “This is who we are.”
Cooper and Herbert Harrigan played into that, as players who were talented but inconsistent. Cooper is a scorer, and she had games when the Gamecocks handed her the ball and told her to do what she does best.
There were other times they needed her to control, to facilitate, to be part of the five on the court. Cooper scored in double figures for the three NCAA tournament games, but only reached that plateau seven times in 16 SEC games.
Herbert Harrigan is a terrific jump-shooter, solid rebounder and would have been a key part of next year’s team. But she did step outside the rules this season, resulting in disciplinary action by Staley.
Ground under repair
While at N.C. State, Antonelli worked as a bank teller, in a loan department and for the rec department during summers. She lined ball fields, swept the gym and kept score at the games.
The summer college programs of today didn't exist then. Now players are on campus during the summer, working with the strength coach and having unsupervised shootarounds in the gym while taking a few classes.
Overhauling the summer-school system, Antonelli said, would do wonders for the entitled attitudes players get.
“They don’t get jobs. Most kids think a W-2 is a play their coach calls,” Antonelli said. “You’re supposed to go to college to get your degree. Basketball is your vehicle to get that. We’ve totally forgotten that point.”
Antonelli is paying college tuition for her children and those bills aren’t cheap. She knows that players never see those sums because they’re on full scholarship, but when the ball stops bouncing, what then?
“We are doing those student-athletes a huge disservice by not sending them home and making them get a job,” Antonelli said. “Come back in August. You’ve got a lot of time to get them ready to play.”
Staley is expected to address the transfers when she holds her season wrapup news conference in the next couple of days. She'll likely say what she’s said after losing players in the past, noting that mixing teenage emotions and egos with playing time is hardly ever seamless.
But after losing four players in 24 hours, this time is there cause for concern?
“Nothing is wrong with our program," Sessions said. "Sometimes things just don’t fit with certain players. Coach is bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class. If I was our fans, I’d be psyched, I’d be excited.”