NEW YORK – April has been quite the whirlwind of emotions if you’re a member of the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball program.
First, you would have endured the gauntlet that is the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks entered the tourney as the top overall seed in the Stockton region and cruised to their first National Championship appearance in school history. The entire basketball world expected USC to face what would have been a then 112-0 University of Connecticut Huskies squad, but Mississippi State had other ideas, upsetting the juggernaut and setting up an all-SEC affair for a national title.
The Gamecocks, led by their lionhearted head coach Dawn Staley, appeared to be a team of destiny as they steamrolled the Bulldogs and hoisted the first National Championship trophy in school history.
Fast forward 11 days and over 1,500 miles from Dallas to New York City: Two of the three leading scorers from that title game, along with an All-American who was the catalyst behind their success all season, and three of the most pivotal members from that tournament-tested Gamecocks team face a different kind of pressure.
Seated within feet of each other and surrounded by their closest friends and family, Alaina Coates, Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are now minutes away from finding out what WNBA team they will suit up for this summer.
Their Gamecock garnet and black uniforms have been replaced with knee-length black dresses for Gray and Davis and a white jumpsuit for Coates. The three teammates showcase the same demure behavior that made them a cohesive unit on the floor as the bright lights of the cameras turn-on and the gut-wrenching anticipation that comes with waiting to see your name appear on a screen in front of you begins.
First, it’s the nation’s record-setting scorer, Kelsey Plum, who hears her name read as the first overall pick. Then, the cameras slowly saunter over Coates’ way and the first Gamecock goes off the board. WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes delivers the news that Coates’ didn’t have to wait long to hear.
“With the second pick in the 2017 WNBA draft the Chicago Sky select… Alaina Coates from South Carolina.” The journey to Samsung 837, the new setting where the WNBA has decided to hold the 2017 draft, has been a particularly grueling one for Alaina Coates.
“I’m just really excited. I think I’m still coming off the national championship high. I didn’t get to do anything except watch a TV screen, but I was still part of the team. For me to go number two, especially with my situation, I’m really excited about that as well,” Coates told the media after being selected.
Her “situation” was a nagging ankle injury that held her out of the entirety of the National Championship run and required her to get surgery after the season ended. She’s attending the draft on a supportive scooter, and likely won’t be back to basketball activities for at least the next four weeks.
Still, the Sky know the interior value and immediate scoring threat that Coates will bring when she ditches the scooter. The 6’4″ center is SC’s career leader in FG%, defensive rebounds, double-doubles, and blocks. She’s a two-time AP Honorable Mention All-American, and four-time All-SEC selection. In other words, she’s a force to be reckoned with and has been for some time.
But, the WNBA is a league full of bigs with similar resumes, and without Elena Delle Donne in a Sky uniform for the first time in four seasons, Coates will immediately be leaned upon to be a scoring threat.
The increased workload and nightly battles with other bigs around the league is actually something she’s looking forward to though. “As a big person, I don’t know if it’s because I always went against my dad in the driveway, but I actually enjoy the physicality. It means something to me that if you’re playing in the post, you can get your shot off. I know I’m probably going to get beat up as a rookie, but I’m looking forward to it,” Coates said.
For now though, its all about rehab and getting healthy. She’s out to prove that Chicago made the right decision by selecting her second overall. “It means a lot. It’s just a lot of motivation for me when I do come back. [I want to] come out and show them the reasons why they still picked me despite my situation.”
Gamecock nation didn’t have to wait very long to see another of their own go off the board as just two picks after Coates it was Allisha Gray who heard her name called.
Unlike Coates, Gray had a year of eligibility left in college and could have returned to make another title run, but instead she chose to take her talents to the next level.
The wildly athletic speedster won’t be going very far from where her fond National Championship dreams became a reality as the Dallas Wings selected her fourth overall. “It was great. I was predicted around the first round, but I was unsure. I’m glad the Dallas Wings have confidence in me and chose me. I’m excited to join the organization,” she said after the selection.
Another Wing that’s likely thrilled at the proposition of having Gray in the backcourt has to be Skylar Diggins. Diggins, a formidable athlete in her own right, will now have a running mate who can match her electric tempo and fits in perfectly with what the Wings are trying to do offensively.
Already a polished guard, Gray didn’t waste any time getting back into the gym and improving her game prior to the draft. “I’ve been improving my ball handling. From a mental aspect, I’ve been working on my decision making because in the WNBA you’re playing against a lot of experienced players,” she said.
Beaming from ear to ear, Gray coolly makes her way through the media circuit, her enthusiasm matched by the always boisterous Dawn Staley, whose excitement for first Coates and now Gray permeates from her spot on the “Legends Couch” throughout the room around her.
Two down, one to go.
It’s fitting for a team that never slipped out of the top ten national rankings to have all of their players who attended the WNBA draft be selected in the top ten. The third and final Gamecock to hear her name called was Kaela Davis, a 6’2″ guard who played alongside the aforementioned Gray all season long and with whom she combined for 28 points with in the National Championship game.
Davis comes from esteemed basketball pedigree. Her father, Antonio Davis, played 15 seasons in the NBA with four different franchises. Antonio passed on his well-known tenacity to Kaela as the hard-nosed guard did it all for the Gamecocks averaging a well-rounded 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. She also played the second most minutes on the squad for the year, 1030 total.
Much like Coates and Gray, Davis pulled a great deal of inspiration from Coach Staley. “Her big thing is always playing at the next level. That’s something she’s always been preparing myself and teammates since we got to South Carolina,” Davis said. “She always starts things off with ‘if you want to get here, you need to do A, B and C.’ Luckily, we had someone who has been here and was successful here. She’s tried to instill that in us as much as possible. I’m super thankful to have been under her for the two years I was.”
The most thrilling part of Davis being selected 10th overall might just be the fact that she won’t have to part ways with backcourt running mate Allisha Gray as Davis was also selected by the Wings.
The two newest members of the Wings were all smiles as they video-chatted with fans back in Dallas, and it was none other than Skylar Diggins that welcomed them into the franchise. Her and Tiffany Bias greeted both Gray and Davis with equally excited smiles of approval.
When the draft dust settled, the South Carolina trio had made history. Coates became the highest Gamecock drafted in the history of the program, while it was also just the second time a school had three players all selected in the top 10 in WNBA history, joining UConn’s top-three trio from last year.
Coates, Gray and Davis have become accustomed to being “SC firsts,” from their National Championship run to their new WNBA homes. As they embark on the next chapter of their careers and teammates become opponents, at least in the case of Coates, it’s clear this trio is far from being done as pioneers of the game.