USC reaping benefits of Final Four appearance

North Carolina's Allisha Gray (left) and South Carolina's Alaina Coates chase a loose ball during last season's NCAA Greensboro Regional. This season, they'll be teammates at USC. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

When a pair of highly touted additions arrive at South Carolina later this month, Dawn Staley won’t be there to greet them — in fact, the USC women’s basketball coach will be half a world away.

It’s that kind of summer for the Gamecocks, who will have three players spread across the globe participating in international competition, while three others will be acclimating themselves to USC for the first time. Both are a direct result of the kind of program Staley has built at South Carolina, which finished last season with the best record in school history and a first trip to the Final Four.

Staley and rising sophomore forward A’ja Wilson left last week for a trip that will ultimately take them to Chekhov, Russia, for the FIBA Under-19 World Championships, where Staley will serve as head coach for the U.S. team. Also last week, rising senior guard Tiffany Mitchell and rising junior forward Alaina Coates embarked on a trip which will take them to Toronto, where both will play for the U.S. in the Pan-American Games.

While they’re gone, a pair of transfers will arrive in Columbia — former Georgia Tech guard Kaela Davis and former North Carolina wing Allisha Gray, both All-ACC players at their former schools who will have to sit out this coming season due to NCAA transfer rules. They’ll join Sarah Imovbioh, the ACC’s leading rebounder last season at Virginia, who will be able to play immediately since she’s graduated.

“I think they’ll all be great for our program,” said Mitchell, the two-time SEC Player of the Year. “They all bring something different, something we’re going to need to get us over that hump to win that national championship. I know Sarah gets to play this year. I wish I could play with Kaela and Allisha, but I think those are great pieces,. When our class graduates, they’ll come in and pick up right where we left off.”

The most recent addition is Gray, who played against the Gamecocks in the NCAA Greensboro Regional last season. Staley said Gray’s father is a school principal, and had grown concerned over the academic scandal at North Carolina which involves the women’s basketball program. After Gray received her release from the Tar Heels, her father reached out to Staley.

“Once we got that call, you don’t turn down a player of that caliber,” Staley said. “Allisha Gray, we knew her extremely well, her and her family. She was on campus before she committed to North Carolina, so we know them well. I’ve been to her high school a number of times, and her family’s been on campus a lot. So it was an easy decision to bring her into our Gamecock family.”

Imovbioh, who has one season of eligibility left, will bring an inside presence to a program that lost forward and Goose Creek product Aleighsa Welch to graduation. And Davis and Gray, each with two seasons of eligibility remaining, will be there to step in after Mitchell’s USC career comes to an end.

“It means that people have seen us come from the bottom of the pyramid and working our way up to the top,” Coates said. “I feel like people want to be a part of this kind of team. That’s one of the reasons I decided to come here. ... I wanted to be part of that era of coming up for greatness. I feel like other people are starting to see that we’re one of those programs you need to watch out for, and that you want to be a part of.”

While women’s college basketball is a tight-knit community and most top players are friendly with one another from camps or international play, the additions of Davis and Gray still came as a surprise at USC. “I did not see this coming,” Wilson said. “I’m scrolling Twitter, and I’m like, ‘We got them?’ I’m so excited.”

Coates agreed. “I was a little shocked,” she added. She said Staley announced Davis’ addition via a group text message which said, “Welcome your new teammate, Kaela Davis.” A few weeks later, she sent out another one welcoming Gray. “I was like, this is great,” Coates said. “The new additions, we’re happy to have them, and we’re just really excited for when they can start playing.”

Imovbioh has been on campus throughout the summer, and freshman guard Shay Colley from Canada rounds out the Gamecocks’ newcomers for 2015-16. Staley believes the appeal of USC’s program to top-level transfers goes beyond last year’s 34-3 record.

“I think people like the way we play the game,” she said. “... Each and every one of our players individually, they get better. Also, we’re able to play as a cohesive unit. I know nowadays a lot of players would like to go somewhere and shoulder a program. And that’s really hard work to do that, especially at a high level. You want to play with players who are equally as good as you. Bottom line, I think the players who choose to come to South Carolina, they’re choosing for the ultimate goal, which is to win a national championship.”

First comes international play, where Mitchell will continue to hone leadership skills USC will need with Welch gone, and where Staley will lift along with Wilson to keep the rising sophomore on her workout routine amid all the travel. And then? It’s easy to envision the Gamecocks opening the season with a lineup featuring the 6-5 Wilson, 6-4 Coates and 6-2 Imovbioh, and Mitchell in the backcourt.

“I pray for other teams,” Wilson said with a smile. “That lineup is looking crazy good.”