COLUMBIA — Aleighsa Welch may have played her final game at South Carolina, but her legacy will continue at USC — in more than just the record books, or the Final Four banner the Gamecocks will hang at Colonial Life Arena prior to next season.
Two USC fans from Columbia, Morris and Sheila Cregger, have endowed a women’s basketball scholarship in the name of the former Goose Creek High School star, a three-year captain who helped lead the Gamecocks to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. A graduating senior, Welch last week was chosen in the second round of the WNBA draft.
The endowed scholarship is the first for the USC women’s basketball program, and the third at the school after football scholarships awarded in the names of former players Tommy Suggs and Marcus Lattimore. Welch will play a role in choosing who the scholarship is awarded to, head coach Dawn Staley said Wednesday in a news conference wrapping up this past season.
“It was a total surprise,” Staley said. “They had been around our program, but I had never met them. ... For our basketball team and what we’re trying to do, this just raises the bar a lot more with what we’re trying to accomplish with our program on and off the court.”
Staley said she, Welch, and Welch’s mother Sharell had lunch with the Creggers on Tuesday. The honorable mention All-American was “speechless,” Staley added. “When someone leaves a legacy like an endowed scholarship in your name — I probably would have been as speechless as Lisa,” she said. “But definitely she’s grateful. Her mother almost came to tears.”
Staley currently has three scholarships available for next season, with one of them committed to point guard Shay Colley of Ontario, Canada, thus far USC’s only signee for the 2015-16 campaign. She’d prefer to use the others on a perimeter shooter and another post player, and said the Gamecocks’ 34-3 season has helped to raise USC’s recruiting profile outside of the Palmetto State.
“Some of the doors that were shut closed to some recruits, some prospects, have been reopened in a positive way. I think South Carolina, we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re becoming a popular choice for young people,” Staley said.
“When you’re able to go to a Final Four, they want to be a part of that. Because we’re able to do that, I think we will be able to probably handpick some of the best talent across the country. Not just locally, but across the country. So I think it will be a big boost to our recruiting nationally, what we’ve been able to do.”
As for Welch, the next step is WNBA training camp in mid-May. The 6-foot forward was drafted by the Chicago Sky in the second round of last week’s draft, but Staley — who was a five-time WNBA All-Star — said making the roster won’t be easy.
“I’ve talked to a lot of WNBA people, and they say there are only one or two roster spots — one or two roster spots — for current draft picks to make it along with free agents. So she’ll have a hard time,” Staley said. “Every single person will have a hard time. But we know what Lisa Welch does during hard times, and what she does is, she rises to the occasion. So if I am a betting woman, I’m betting on Lisa.”
Regardless of what happens at the professional level, Welch’s legacy at USC is ironclad. As the first state player of the year in more than a decade to sign with South Carolina, she proved pivotal in Staley’s effort to dominate the Palmetto State in recruiting. On the floor, she was the fourth USC player to finish with more than 1,000 career points and 900 career rebounds, and set a standard for work ethic and leadership.
And now, she’s the first to have a scholarship endowed in her name. “Whoever receives Lisa’s scholarship,” Staley said, “would definitely have big shoes to fill.”
Staley on Wednesday was named head coach of the U.S. women’s under-19 national team which will compete in the world championships in Chekhov, Russia, from July 18-26. Staley, who will also be an assistant on the 2016 Olympic team, coached the under-18 team to a world title last summer. Gamecocks forward A’ja Wilson will be among the players trying to make the squad.
The USC men will play DePaul in the opening round of the Paradise Jam tournament in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, from Nov. 20-23. Other teams in the event are Florida State, Hofstra, Norfolk State, Indiana State, Tulsa and Ohio.