Freshman phenom Fulwiley elevates personal goals for 2nd season with South Carolina WBB

Coach Dawn Staley had a question for MiLaysia Fulwiley after South Carolina’s 2023-24 season:

“What do you want to do?” Staley remembered asking her star freshman, the coach said Wednesday in a radio interview with 107.5 The Game. “What are your plans for next year?”

Fulwiley, Staley said, gave an ambitious response:

“When I came in, I just kind of wanted to fit in and get the information that I needed,” Staley recalled. “So I didn’t really challenge to be a starter.”

Staley chuckled.

“OK,” she said. “So you’re gonna challenge to be a starter?”

Fulwiley answered: “Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna challenge myself, and I’m gonna challenge my teammates to be a starter.”

The assumption for next year, Staley said, is that those who started during USC’s 2023-24 national championship season should start in 2024-25 as well. That’s unless someone were to beat one of them out.

And Fulwiley absolutely could earn herself a spot.

“Now she’s gonna take it to the next level,” Staley said. “And once she does, she’s gonna make us a better team.”

All but one of USC’s regular starters from last year’s campaign are returning next year: guards Te-Hina Paopao, Raven Johnson and Bree Hall, and forward Chloe Kitts. Starting center Kamilla Cardoso is making her WNBA debut with the Chicago Sky this summer.

But Fulwiley made her mark as one of the nation’s most gifted players, becoming the first freshman to win SEC Tournament Most Outstanding Player since Candace Parker (Tennessee) in 2006. And she did so coming off the bench.

Fulwiley’s highlight-reel worthy style of play (and Staley labeling her “a generation talent”) grouped her in with other star rookies across the country, like Southern Cal’s JuJu Watkins, Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo and LSU’s Mikaylah Williams. The best of the best. Ushering in the next generation of women’s college basketball.

One key difference between Fulwiley and that trio? “Freshmen on other teams ain’t going through what I’m going through,” Fulwiley told reporters at the Final Four. “They’re starting.”

Players who go to South Carolina (and their parents) do so with an understanding that they’ll likely come off the bench their freshman years — and perhaps as sophomores and juniors. It’s all about who is playing their best basketball and how they can contribute to the team’s overall success.

Rising senior Sania Feagin, Staley said, understands that as well as anybody.

Feagin made her first career start this season at Arkansas on Feb. 29. Her playing time fluctuated, recording a season-low two minutes against North Carolina (on Nov. 30) and Mississippi State (Jan. 7), but logging 24 minutes versus Kentucky (Feb. 25) and a season-high 32 minutes versus Presbyterian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“She’s the ultimate teammate,” Staley said Wednesday. “... She played an impactful, integral role on our run to the championship. I could count on her. I could trust her. And she built that through practice. And then she built that through the playing time that she did get.”

Feagin said during NCAA Tournament that she’d taken time to counsel freshmen Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson (whose clutch performance in Cleveland earned her a spot on the All-Final Four Team) through their lack of playing time but also poked fun at the fact that they got plenty of opportunities to impact games, averaging 18 and 17 minutes per contest, respectively.

“They play way more minutes than I ever played my freshman year,” Feagin said with a lighthearted smile. “So it’s like, ‘Y’all sitting here complaining about sitting. Y’all didn’t experience nothing.’ ”

Looking at next year’s USC roster

Staley is no stranger to managing talent-rich rosters. When her first No. 1 recruiting class (of 2019) occupied most of the starting lineup in 2021 and 2022, she had her second No. 1 recruiting class on the bench (2021 class). Even having artfully managed those circumstances, she may have her work cut out for her next season.

The Gamecocks have lost one player this offseason — Cardoso — as they look to embark on the “repeat tour” in 2024-25.

South Carolina is returning all of its 2023-24 starters as well as Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson. Feagin is also coming back, and it’s assumed Sakima Walker (a senior who has not officially announced her return nor departure) is, too.

Adhel Tac, USC’s 6-foot-5 2024 signee who early enrolled in January to rehab a knee injury, will make her college debut next season, as will Camden’s Joyce Edwards (a 6-foot-2 forward and the No. 3 overall recruit in the Class of 2024) and Maddy McDaniel (a 5-8 point guard and the No. 14 recruit in the Class of 2024).

There’s also the matter of Ashlyn Watkins, whose 68.2 defensive rating led the nation this season, according to Basketball Reference.

Of the 12 players who’ll be on South Carolina’s 2024-25 roster, nine are former McDonald’s All-Americans: Edwards, Hall, Fulwiley, Feagin, Raven Johnson, Tessa Johnson, McDaniel, Paopao and Watkins.

The maximum number of roster spots in college basketball is 15, so the Gamecocks could technically add a few players this offseason via the transfer portal (which is now closed, and most top prospects committed or signed to other schools). Adding more to a loaded roster, though, would further complicate Staley’s rotation decisions for next year.