Top Class: Gamecocks high-level recruits looking for titles
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Zia Cooke isn't shy about listing the expectations for herself or South Carolina's top-rated women's basketball recruiting class.
"Going to the Final Four every year, winning the national championship," said Cooke, a 5-foot-9 point guard from Toledo, Ohio, ranked as the country's fourth-best player overall coming out of high school. "That's what you come here for."
Cooke is among four of the nation's top 11 ranked players who signed with the Gamecocks and have begun summer sessions. Last season was the first since 2012-13 where Staley's team didn't capture an Southeastern Conference regular-season or league tournament title, a run highlighted by the 2017 national crown.
Cooke and her freshman teammates plan to get the Gamecocks back on the title track.
"There's a lot of hype about us," said Brea Beal, a 6-foot guard from Rock Island, Illinois, who was the country's 11th best recruit according to ESPN.
Also in the group are 6-4 Aliyah Boston of Worcester, Massachusetts (rated the game's third-best high school player) and 6-3 Laeticia Amihere of Canada, who was considered the 10th best college prospect.
Staley said she and her staff worked hard the past few years to sign the talented group.
"This particular signing, we're getting repaid for all the work that we put in in prior years and came up empty with some of the best prospects in the country," Staley said.
Boston and Cooke are the top draws, although it's uncertain how much time either will see this fall.
Boston is expected to begin the season behind senior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and sophomore Victaria Saxton, named to the SEC all-freshman team last season. Ahead of Cooke is all-SEC team point guard Tyasha Harris, a senior who was a freshman starter for South Carolina's national champions three years ago.
Boston and Cooke both understand their situation, saying they're eager to play whatever role Staley has for them this season.
"I'm going to bring whatever they need," Cooke said. "I'm going to play my role. Right now, I'm just trying to figure out what (Staley) needs to help me impact the team.
The influx of young talent may have been the cause of unexpected upheaval this past April with four players, including leading scorer Te'a Cooper, choosing to transfer shortly after the Gamecocks finished 23-10, their first season with double-digit defeats since 2011-12. Herbert Harrigan , who originally planned to leave, decided to stay after talking more with Staley.
The newest players also included transfer Destiny Littleton and first-year player Olivia Thompson. Littleton is a 5-9 guard and former McDonald's All-American who played two seasons with Texas. The Gamecocks have petitioned the NCAA for a waiver for Littleton to play immediately.
Thompson is a 5-8 guard expected to help boost South Carolina's outside shooting. She led the state of South Carolina in her final prep season with 105 3-pointers.
The newcomers, Cooke said, have been teamed together at times during workouts and have put on a show when given the opportunity. It's something Gamecock fans, who lead the nation in women's basketball attendance, will enjoy seeing in a game.
"It's something to see," Cooke said with a smile. "It's a lot of fun."