South Carolina’s latest No. 1 class ‘growing,’ contributing

February 1, 2022 GMT
South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) dribbles the ball against Mississippi guard Angel Baker, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) dribbles the ball against Mississippi guard Angel Baker, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) dribbles the ball against Mississippi guard Angel Baker, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
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South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) dribbles the ball against Mississippi guard Angel Baker, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
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South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) dribbles the ball against Mississippi guard Angel Baker, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina has had the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in women’s basketball two of the past three years.

The Gamecocks are deep and talented, which can be good and bad for an incoming, highly decorated recruit.

The 2019 class was able to have an instant impact. It’s more of a slow grind for the Gamecocks’ 2021 group of players to find a way to contribute to the nation’s No. 1 team.

But coach Dawn Staley says it’s not a surprise for the freshmen. She made it clear to them the challenge they would be up against before they stepped on campus.

Staley said they knew they would “spend two years with the other number one recruiting class and they didn’t shy away from it.”

Accepting the challenge is starting to pay off for first-year guards Saniya Rivers and Bree Hall, who ESPN ranked as the third and 14th best prospects in the country coming out of high school last year.

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Rivers, a lanky, athletic, 6-foot-1 player from Wilmington, N.C., has played double-figure minutes in each of South Carolina’s last three victories. She tied her career high with seven points in 20 minutes in a 69-40 win over Ole Miss on Jan. 27.

Hall, at 6-foot backcourt player from Dayton, Ohio, had played double-figure minutes in three of South Carolina’s past five games and had a career-best 10 points in an 85-30 win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 24.

The Gamecocks (20-1, 8-1 Southeastern Conference) return to the court Thursday night at home against Alabama (11-9, 2-7), seeking their ninth straight win after the season’s lone loss at Missouri in December.

Rivers said she promised the team “at the beginning of the season that I’d do whatever I had to to come in and be the player I could to help us get what we all want, a national championship. I’ve been working hard at practice, locking in.”

Sania Feagin, a 6-3 guard from Ellenwood, Georgia, was the country’s fourth-best prospect. She has not gotten the court-time of her classmates, playing a combined 11 minutes in South Carolina’s past five games.

Then there is Raven Johnson, a feisty, 5-8 point guard from Atlanta, who was projected to be South Carolina’s primary backup to senior starter Destanni Henderson. But Johnson, the country’s No. 2 college prospect, injured her left knee in a win over South Dakota State and won’t play again this season.

Staley knew entering the season minutes would be a premium — 11 players on the roster are McDonald’s All-Americans — with the heart of 2019′s No. 1 recruiting class in All-American Aliyah Boston, high-scoring guard Zia Cooke, defensive leader Brea Beal and agile forward Laeticia Amihere as juniors.

Staley took to the phones before the season began, letting players’ families know with such a talented roster, some might see their court time reduced this season.

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Rivers and Hall are forcing Staley’s hand so far. The two have often been two of the first players off the bench and responded with key performances.

Hall played a season-high 23 minutes against Kentucky, and played a prime role in defending Wildcats star Rhyne Howard, who was 2-of-14 shooting in a loss at South Carolina last month.

“She wants to make an impact,” Staley said of Hall. “I don’t think she knows any other way besides to play hard.”

Not everything has gone well for the newbies this season. Neither Hall nor Rivers has shot the ball well with both shooting around 25% from the field.

South Carolina has plenty of players who can score, Boston said, The junior with 14 straight double-double performances likes the lift she sees her younger teammates bring when they take the court.

Rivers has “been locked in, focused. She’s asked any questions if she’s not sure about it,” Boston said. “I’m just really proud to see where she is right now.”

Staley believes her freshmen will make their mark as the Gamecocks chase more championships — this year and going foward.

“They’re growing,” Staley said, “even though they’re not playing a whole lot.”

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25