South Carolina’s championship X-factor? With the nation’s deepest bench, it’s everybody

CLEVELAND — When MiLaysia Fulwiley first arrived on South Carolina’s campus this past offseason, the last time she hadn’t started a basketball game was when she was in the seventh grade (playing for the high school varsity team). She didn’t remember what it was like to not have her name called over the PA system in the starting lineup. Couldn’t really recall a time when she had watched the tip from anywhere other than the floor.

But, then she got to South Carolina. And the player who had been the No. 13 recruit in her class, who had scored more than 3,000 points in high school and won four state titles was now surrounded by players … exactly like her. In that world, she learned what it was like to not have her name called with the starters. What the view of the tip was like from the bench. What it felt like to be a reserve.

“It was humbling,” Fulwiley said. “It was very, very humbling.”

On Friday night, when the Gamecocks took down NC State 78-59 in the Final Four to advance to Sunday’s national title game against Iowa, that’s where her evening began — sitting a few spots down from Dawn Staley, anxiously awaiting her shot to get into the game.

It took seven minutes of play for Staley to turn to her bench and motion to Fulwiley to lose the warm-up shirt and get to the scorer’s table.

From NC State’s sideline, the Wolfpack coaching staff took notice. Because when it comes to South Carolina, it’s just as important to know who’s off the court as who’s on it. With 40 minutes separating the Gamecocks from their third national title, the biggest X-factor this year is that nine different South Carolinas players can be X-factors.

“It’s the best team they’ve had because of (the depth),” NC State coach Wes Moore said. “So it’s a tough matchup.”

Tough indeed. Because while most teams have talent on their benches, that talent isn’t quite like South Carolina’s. Of the nine players in the rotation, eight were top-15 recruits and the ninth was a lowly … No. 25. As a committee, the bench ranks first nationally among power conference teams, supplying nearly 34 points per game.

With how well South Carolina shares the ball — and shares minutes — every player has had her moment. During the season opener, it was Fulwiley (off the bench), who had the highlight of the game. Kamilla Cardoso, the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-7 center, is the focal point on both ends, but in the SEC tournament semifinal game, she knocked down her first career 3-pointer as time expired for the win (off the glass, no less). Against the Wolfpack in the Final Four, Ashlyn Watkins came off the bench with Fulwiley to pull down 20 rebounds — the most by any player off the bench in any NCAA Tournament game in the last 25 seasons. Watkins also scored 8 of the bench’s 30 points against the Wolfpack and played a team-high 29 minutes.

Said Staley: “I saw the two she didn’t go for. … I told her that coming off the court, ‘You didn’t even go for the two that were right in front of you.’”

But that’s why South Carolina’s depth is so good. Whether you start, whether you play 25 minutes, the expectation is that any of the nine might be the one who makes the decisive play or turn the game in the Gamecocks’ favor. This is, after all, the same program that produced Laeticia Amihere — the No. 8 pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft after she started only four games in her entire South Carolina career.

“When their number is called, they come through — it’s a luxury,” Staley said. “It really is a luxury to have the ability to play as many players as we’re playing.”

Coming into this season, only two Gamecocks returners had averaged more than 15 minutes a game at any point in their South Carolina careers — Cardoso and Raven Johnson, and they had averaged only 18 minutes per game.

Many of the questions swirling around South Carolina were about how Staley would rebuild after losing a graduating class that had gone 129-9 in four seasons. But Staley saw the blank slate as an opportunity. There was Cardoso — a matchup nightmare — and Johnson, the maturing point guard ready to shoulder more of a load. Elsewhere, it was a bit of a puzzle. Which Staley loved.

The framework was there, but it was all about who could play best together and play through Cardoso. Staley had conversations with each player to explain why they were assigned their roles — bench player or starter, first off the bench or fourth.

“You talk to them and you make it make sense to them. You don’t lie to them. You don’t sell them a false dream,” Staley said. “You say, ‘Here’s why you’re playing. Here’s why you’re not playing. Here’s why this person is playing more than you. Here’s why you’re not. Here’s how you get more minutes.’”

The landing point was a team that still heavily features four players but with has nine logging at least 15 minutes a game. That’s not just a challenge for the coaches that look across the sideline and see a hockey-line substitution coming in (and one that might feature three top-15 recruits at a time) but a team that has fresher legs — even at this point in the season — than anyone else in the country.

Iowa knows what South Carolina’s starting five will look like in Sunday’s national championship, but it’s anyone’s guess who might be the one who makes the big play or starts a scoring surge. Might as well close your eyes and point to any name on the roster.

Thirty-seven games into the year, it’s still a different experience for Fulwiley to be starting her games on the bench instead of the starting lineup, but in those hard moments, this is what she reminded herself — that the team was built to make a run to the national title and if she did her part, she might be able to help the Gamecocks get there (even if it meant beginning the game from the sideline), and that was well worth it all.

“As freshmen, we’re used to being the best. It’s hard, but you just got to do what you got to do and you’ve just gotta think about the bigger picture, which is winning a national championship,” Fulwiley said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all season — just thinking about the bigger picture.”

(Photo of Ashlyn Watkins: Justin Tafoya / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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