Bench production makes the difference again in National Championship

by:Annie Poteat04/07/24
South Carolina basketball national championship postgame press Conference following win against Iowa

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The South Carolina women’s basketball team defeated Iowa 87-75 to claim the National Championship. The difference for the Gamecocks was their bench production. 

“We sacrifice our playing time, our individual goals, to win a national championship and it happened today,” freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley said. 

South Carolina’s bench, which contains a majority of freshmen and sophomores, scored 37 of the team’s points. The Hawkeyes bench did not produce any points.

“That was a huge advantage because I think they played nine people in double figures,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said. “We had six. Just to have those extra fouls and extra legs. They didn’t have to play too hard. Even the other night, they were resting people the other night.”

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Freshman Tessa Johnson came off the bench and led South Carolina’s offense. She scored 19 points, including three three-pointers and four rebounds.

“To have a roster that goes nine, 10 deep is, it’s a privilege, it really is,” Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley said. “But it has to be developed slowly and the right way. Like, there’s a lot of trust that has to be built because there’s some games that some of them won’t play a whole lot, especially the people that’s coming off the bench.”

Fulwiley scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds and four assists. 

“With Lay-Lay, I mean we went through it all together,” Johnson said. “Yes, I had a hard season coming in and just being a newcomer, but she was right there with me. We had each other’s backs and we will always have each other’s backs, but doing it with her, I love it and she’s my little freshie.”

Johnson said she and Fulwiley wouldn’t be playing the way they are without their older teammates serving as role models.

South Carolina replaced the entire starting lineup from a year prior and earned an undefeated season. Fulwiley said the young team is an intimidating sight.  

“Scary man, that’s really scary and I feel sorry for all the teams next year that have to see us,” Fulwiley said. 

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Sophomore Ashlyn Watkins ran into some foul trouble early on and only played 14 minutes. She still managed to score three points and dish out an assist. Defensively, she had one block and two steals in her short time on the court. 

Watkins said the team knows its starters can’t play a full game, so they like to have “fresh legs.”

“We knew that we had a deep bench. We knew that some of the people on the bench could’ve started, but we didn’t take that personal,” Watkins said. “When we were going into the game we were just going to play our best basketball and that’s what we did.”

Watkins and Fulwiley are roommates and are both from Columbia. Watkins said she loves to play with Fulwiley and said that representing their hometown meant a lot to her. 

“MiLaysia, she came and dominated today, she’s competitive, she’s going to go out there and she’s going to give it her all,” Watkins said. “She doesn’t like to lose and she has just great passion for the basketball and that’s what I love about her.

The core of the Gamecocks is young, with many playing large roles on the biggest stage off the bench.

“It just shows that we’re a great team. It shows that we have people, freshmen, that come in and just make great impact on the game,” Watkins said. “And that’s why our bench outscores the other people’s bench, because we have freshmen that are not afraid to be in this position and be on this type of stage and both of them went out today and just did so great. I’m so proud of them.” 

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