A’ja Wilson (jersey #22) and Alaina Coates (jersey #41) are two of the most recognizable Gamecocks. | Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
An NCAA women’s basketball powerhouse under Dawn Staley, the South Carolina Gamecocks have had eight players drafted to the WNBA since 2015. Which players made our list of the best players in program history?
Last season, the top five women’s basketball teams in the nation were the South Carolina Gamecocks, Oregon Ducks, Baylor Lady Bears, Maryland Terrapins and UConn Huskies. At Swish Appeal, we are taking a look at the best all-time starting lineups for each of those programs.
Here’s the all-time starting five for the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks:
PF: A’ja Wilson
3x First-Team All-American, 3x SEC Player of the Year, 4x First-Team All-SEC, 2x SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 3x SEC All-Defense Team, 2x SEC Tournament MVP, SEC Freshman of the Year, 1x Wade Trophy, 1x John R. Wooden Award, 1x Naismith College Player of the Year, 1x AP Player of the Year, 1x USBWA Player of the Year
Let’s start with an easy one, shall we?
Simply put: If you think about the Dawn Staley era of Gamecocks basketball, the first player who comes to mind is probably A’ja Wilson. She embodies the ascent of the South Carolina program under Staley and led the Gamecocks to their first-ever NCAA title in 2017 as one of the most dominant bigs in the country and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Wilson was named the SEC’s Player of the Year three times, was an All-SEC First-Teamer four times and was the Naismith College Player of the Year as a senior in 2018 — just a few of her large collection of collegiate honors.
Even all those honors, however, don’t tell Wilson’s full story. Her passion for the game and larger-than-life personality quickly made her a fan favorite at South Carolina, and by the time she graduated and was drafted to the Las Vegas Aces as the WNBA’s 2018 No. 1 overall pick, Wilson’s panache had made her a universally-adored star.
She’s the program’s all-time leading scorer (2,389) and shot-blocker (363), yes, and racked up more NCAA awards during her time at South Carolina than you can shake a stick at. Yet there is an aura surrounding Wilson that you don’t come across with just any star player — she is Gamecock basketball, and is thus a no-brainer on this hypothetical starting five.
C: Alaina Coates
2x All-SEC First Team, 2x All-SEC Second Team, 2x SEC All-Defensive Team, 1x SEC 6th Player of the Year, SEC Freshman of the Year, 2x Honorable Mention All-America
During a time when the SEC was considered by many to be the biggest and toughest conference in the nation, South Carolina was its biggest and toughest team — largely thanks to its frontcourt of Wilson and Alaina Coates.
A 6-foot-4 center with a broad frame and penchant for finishing in the paint, Coates brought an overwhelming physical presence for the Gamecocks best summarized by two statistics: a collegiate career average of 9.3 rebounds per game (in just 23.5 minutes played) and a cumulative field goal percentage of 62.2 percent. Coates regularly bullied opponents down low and on the glass with teams often unable to match her size as she gobbled up offensive rebounds and finished easy shots at the rim on countless occasions.
Though a foot injury cut Coates’ NCAA career short, she still owns the Gamecock women’s basketball record for total defensive rebounds (850) and has a pair of All-SEC First Team honors to her name. Coates was drafted by the Chicago Sky at No. 2 overall in the 2017 WNBA Draft.
SF: Tiffany Mitchell
1x First-Team All-American, 2x Third-Team All-American, 2x SEC Player of the Year, 3x First-Team All-SEC, 1x SEC Tournament MVP, 1x Dawn Staley Award
Typically, the origins of a powerhouse NCAA college basketball program can be traced back to a handful of players — “building blocks” that lifted the program to its first taste of success and set the table for future recruits.
Tiffany Mitchell is one such player for South Carolina. Described by the Gamecocks’ official website as the “most decorated women’s basketball player in program history” (which may or may not include Wilson), Mitchell was the star of those upstart Staley teams that always seemed on the cusp of big things — if only they could land one or two more impact players.
That mission was accomplished just one season after Mitchell’s graduation. Staley acquired Allisha Gray (North Carolina) and Kaela Davis (Georgia Tech) as transfers and South Carolina won the national championship.
Mitchell enjoyed several efficient scoring seasons, using her strength to continuously get to the rim and finish, out-muscling guards several inches taller than her. She continues to play that aggressive brand of basketball with the Indiana Fever, to whom she was drafted in 2016.
In a way, though, Mitchell remains with the Gamecocks — a player who was integral to the foundation of today’s women’s basketball empire.
PG: Shannon Johnson
1x Second-Team All-American 3x First-Team All-SEC, South Carolina Association of Letterman Hall of Fame
Believe it or not, South Carolina women’s basketball indeed existed before Dawn Staley took over as head coach. While Shannon Johnson’s Herculean scoring efforts in the mid-1990s might have come at the wrong time for the program — South Carolina reached the NCAA Tournament five times in the previous six seasons with Nancy Wilson coaching the team — it made her accomplishments no less impressive.
In fact, Johnson is one of just three Gamecock women’s basketball players to have her jersey retired by the program. From 1993-96, Johnson amassed 2,230 points, averaging well over 20 points per game in three consecutive seasons. She remains the only player in South Carolina history to accomplish that feat.
The WNBA did not yet exist when Johnson graduated in 1996, but she played in the ABL for a few seasons before becoming South Carolina’s first-ever WNBA draft pick in 1999. Johnson enjoyed a productive 11-year WNBA career, making stops in Orlando (later Connecticut, when the franchise moved), San Antonio, Detroit, Houston and Seattle. Johnson was named to four WNBA All-Star Teams — the most of any South Carolina WNBA product to date — and started for Team USA during their Gold Medal run at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
SG: Martha Parker-Hester
2x Metro Player of the Year, 1x Metro Tournament MVP, Metro Newcomer of the Year, South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, South Carolina Association of Letterman Hall of Fame
— Gamecock Athletics (@GamecocksOnline) May 16, 2016
Going even further back in time, Martha Parker-Hester was one of South Carolina’s very first women’s basketball stars. Like Johnson, her jersey number has been retired by the Gamecocks, and she is a member of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, there isn’t as much content available on Parker-Hester as for the other players on our list, but per the South Carolina Women’s Basketball Record Book, her 1,728 points scored are eighth in program history, while she ranks third in steals (284). During Parker-Hester’s collegiate career (1985-89), South Carolina played in the Metro Conference; she led the team to first-place finishes in three of her four seasons played.
If you search for Parker-Hester now, you’re much more likely to stumble upon her physician’s page. After receiving her undergraduate degree from South Carolina, she returned for more education at the School of Medicine. She now practices family medicine in Columbia, South Carolina as an MD.
Head coach: Dawn Staley
305-98 cumulative record, 3x SEC Tournament champion, 1x NCAA National Champion, 1x NCAA Final Four, 1x NCAA Elite Eight, 3x NCAA Sweet Sixteen
Dawn Staley is a women’s basketball legend — there’s no doubting that. For as much as she accomplished as a player, though, her coaching resume might be even more impressive when it’s all said and done.
Having just completed her 12th season as South Carolina’s head coach, Staley has built the Gamecocks women’s basketball program from the ground up. Now it’s one of the best in the country. Since the 2013-14 season, Staley’s Gamecocks have finished first in the SEC four times, going 16-0 twice, and have won the conference tournament three times. She, of course, also oversaw the only NCAA championship in program history in 2017 and, even if you include her early years in Columbia, her cumulative head coaching record at South Carolina is an impressive 305-98.
The best part: Staley’s just getting started. South Carolina women’s basketball games have become one of the best draws in the country during the NCAA season, and Gamecock nation has developed a chip on its shoulder similar to that of their head coach’s. Staley coached the Gamecocks to a 32-1 overall record in 2019-20 — the best in program history — and figures to have them in contention for years to come, now bringing in top recruiting classes on the regular.
Other players considered: Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis, Jocelyn Penn, Sheila Foster, Beth Hunt