At deep South Carolina, ‘USC’ means ultimate supporting cast

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Brea Beal has made a habit – a career, actually – of relentlessly guarding the best backcourt player for South Carolina’s opponent and making sure her night is full of frustration.

Her effectiveness is easy enough to see, such as in the semifinal victory over Louisville when the 6-foot-1 junior smothered Cardinals star Hailey Van Lith. Beal can usually hear when she’s the most effective, because the trash-talking frequently follows.

“I just love to keep the ball rolling and not really feed into that, but I definitely do feel it a lot,” said Beal, who held Van Lith to nine points with four turnovers after she hit the 20-point mark in each of Louisville’s first four tournament games.

South Carolina plays Connecticut at Target Center on Sunday night for the national championship. The Gamecocks (34-2) have given up an average of less than 45 points over their first five games in this NCAA Tournament, managing to take one of the nation’s best defenses up another notch.

Beal is their catalyst on that end of the court, regularly taking on a prolific scorer and making her work hard for anything she gets.

“She came in with so much intensity defensively, and it just always stuck with her,” teammate Destanni Henderson said.

Only eight out of 36 times this season has Beal allowed her primary defensive assignment to hit her scoring average. That includes UConn’s Christyn Williams, who had 10 points in their matchup in the Bahamas on Nov. 22.

Midway through her freshman year, the native of Rock Island, Illinois, began to feel her role of the defensive ace as a natural one.

“Coach was like, `You’re good at this. Let’s keep doing this,”‘ Beal said, later adding: “Coming out of high school I was so used to all the little hardware, but as time went on it was bigger than that. I realize it was bigger than that now. You’re playing for something, for the community, for the team, for the coaches.”

South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, has the enviable benefit of both the AP National Player of the Year, Aliyah Boston, and one of the deepest teams in the field. Coach Dawn Staley believes in bench minutes, giving her starters ample rest. The lineup around Boston, too, gives the Gamecocks a wealth of options and skills to throw at the Huskies.

USC is the acronym for the University of South Carolina, but it ought to stand for “ultimate supporting cast.”

Beal matched her season high with 12 points against Louisville. Victaria Saxton, who helps Boston patrol the glass and the paint, totaled 27 points and 28 rebounds over the past three games. Henderson is 5 for 8 from 3-point range over the past two games. Zia Cooke is averaging 10.7 points per game this season.

“Everybody on the team can be dominating,” said Henderson, the sharpshooting senior guard. “I feel like our depth is very interesting, because not a lot of teams have that and a lot of teams have to play their starting five for 40 minutes.”

Beal will likely follow Williams for most of the night, with more of a team effort to contain Huskies star Paige Bueckers – who won the Player of the Year award in 2021 before missing nearly three months of this season to a knee injury.

Bueckers had 19 points and seven assists against the Gamecocks earlier this season. While she’s still been rounding back into form after the rehab, occasionally striking a nerve with a hard landing on the court and grimacing from the discomfort, there’s no way that South Carolina will get anything but the best of Bueckers in the title game in her hometown.

“When it comes to someone like Paige, no matter what she’s going to go out there and the adrenaline is going to shield her from that,” Beal said. “I definitely think we’re going to get her best game that she’s played all season for sure.”

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.