NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — South Carolina is seeking to win its fourth consecutive Southeastern Conference women’s basketball title with help from two players who began their college careers elsewhere.
The Gamecocks feature former North Carolina guard Allisha Gray and ex-Georgia Tech guard Kaela Davis, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules after earning all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in 2014-15.
“It really has been a breath of fresh air having them on our team because they give us so many different options with what they can do on both sides of the ball,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Thursday at the SEC Tipoff media day event.
South Carolina’s roster also includes former Kentucky forward Alexis Jennings, who won’t be eligible to play for the Gamecocks until next season. More than two dozen SEC players began their careers with other Division I teams, though several won’t be eligible to play until next season.
Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi and South Carolina each have three players who started out at other Division I programs. The media’s preseason all-SEC team includes Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields, who is Gray’s former North Carolina teammate.
Texas A&M’s Gary Blair said the rise in transfers nationwide is an “epidemic.” Coaches offer a variety of reasons for the trend.
Georgia’s Joni Taylor noted many prospects choose colleges earlier in the recruiting process and then discover the school wasn’t what they expected.
Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy agrees.
“They don’t choose the right school, they don’t choose the right style of play,” Williams-Flournoy said. “A lot of times it seems they go for the name of the school or they go where somebody wants them to go. It’s not really the right fit for them, and a lot of times that leads to them transferring.
“And kids just don’t stay and fight it out like they used to. When things aren’t going well, it’s easy for them to just get up and go.”
The transition, however, to a new school isn’t always so easy.
DeShields acknowledges her first season at Tennessee was a challenge, as she struggled to deal with injuries and adapt to her new squad. DeShields said she finally felt comfortable late in the season after coaches told her to rely on her instincts.
Ranked fourth at the start of the season, Tennessee suffered a school-record 14 losses but made a surprising run to an NCAA Tournament regional final.
“Last year I still wasn’t in the position that I wanted to be in as far as a leadership role,” DeShields said. “I tried to slide in there without stepping on anybody’s toes, and it was hard. I feel like this year I’ve been able to establish myself as a key component and leader of this team.”
Davis and Gray arrive at South Carolina with track records similar to the credentials DeShields brought to Tennessee. Davis ranked third (19.2) and Gray ranked eighth (15.8) in the ACC in scoring in 2014-15. Gray also ranked 11th in rebounds (7.6).
They join a nucleus that includes 2015-16 SEC player of the year A’ja Wilson and first-team all-SEC selection Alaina Coates. Wilson said Gray and Davis have blended in well. Staley agreed but acknowledged that “it’s also the innocent time of year” before any games have been played.
“Sometimes we even forget that they were even transfers,” Wilson said. “We think they were there from the get-go.”
South Carolina won SEC regular-season titles in 2014 and 2016 and shared the crown with Tennessee in 2015. The Gamecocks reached a Final Four in 2015 and have a combined 67-5 record over the last two seasons.
That recent history helped attract Gray and Davis to South Carolina. Staley believes South Carolina’s success also will help assure the transfers fit right in.
“We’ve established a culture that they liked,” Staley said. “Obviously they chose to come to South Carolina for a reason, and that reason was they wanted to compete for a championship and they wanted something a little bit different than what was in their (previous) situation.
“That’s what we’ll continue to harp on, is this is how we do it. We’ve advanced to places that they haven’t been. Here’s how you try to get back to those places. And they’ve embraced it. It’s been an incredible ride so far.”