MYRTLE BEACH — Off to a 9-0 start despite returning just two starters from last season, South Carolina womens basketball coach Dawn Staley said she is just pleased by how well this team has come together so quickly with newcomers assimilating in and returning players taking on larger roles.
And on that note, the conversation turned to sophomore point guard Khadijah Sessions, who was promoted to the starting lineup this season and is off to a strong start of her own as she returns to her hometown Wednesday night to lead the No. 10 Gamecocks against rival No. 14 North Carolina.
Im really happy for Khadijah, Staley said Tuesday. I think last year she came in, she was injured when she first got to camp so she wasnt ready to really practice or condition with our team fully for a [while]. When she got healthy, she helped our basketball team in the middle of the season. I think she was just taking all the info, watching [former point guard Ieasia Walker], seeing how Ieasia led our basketball team and when she had her opportunity which is this year she just hit the ground running.
Sessions, who averaged 29.5 points and 9.0 rebounds as a senior for Myrtle Beach High School and finished her varsity career with 3,020 points to rank fifth in state history, averaged 17.3 minutes per game last season while playing primarily off the bench. Now installed as the starting point guard and voted a team captain, shes averaging 8.7 points and 4.1 assists while ranking third in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (3-to-1).
Speaking by phone Tuesday after practice, she said the biggest factor in getting ready to win the starting point guard job this year was her conditioning.
[I did] a lot of conditioning, a lot of working with my trainer and a lot of eating better than I did previously, Sessions said of her offseason routine. Its a different level, so you have to get your body right.
Its paid off. Shes been a fixture on the court for the Gamecocks, averaging 26.6 minutes per game second-most on the team while adjusting to more of a leadership role.
Even though the spot was open with Walker finishing up her eligibility last season, Staley stressed that the point guard job was not just given to Sessions this year it was about the work she did in the offseason and preseason to get ready for the opportunity.
Shes vocal, shes a student of the game, shes a winner and you want somebody like that leading your basketball team, Staley said. Everybody has to earn it. Im not going to give anyone anything, so if you see someone starting or playing significant minutes it is because theyve earned it, theyve proven to me and their teammates that they deserve to be out on the floor.
For Khadijah, shes the best point guard that we have on our team and she proves that night in and night out and not just in games. She practices at a very high level and thats why shes able to be effective when its time to play a game.
As for this particular game, Sessions expects to have a number of family and friends in the crowd as she returns to Myrtle Beach.
Its a dream to come back home and play in front of the home fans, she said.
And this is a big one.
North Carolina (9-2) is the toughest challenge by far that the Gamecocks have faced this season, not to mention the rivalry aspect of the matchup that always exists when those two programs meet.
North Carolina has a tradition, a rich tradition behind their name, and theyre able to recruit some of the best in the country, just all over the place year in and year out. And to be able to measure yourself with a team like that at this time of the year, its always a great thing, Staley said.
I [would have] never foreseen us to be ranked higher than them at this point in the game, but it goes to show where our program is headed. Its headed in the right direction. Im just happy this game could take place at this time in Myrtle Beach, where I think people will enjoy two teams that are going to compete like its [their] last [game].
• Notes | South Carolina also has another Grand Strand native on the roster in freshman forward India Farmer. The reigning Toast of the Coast Player of the Year, she appeared in five games this season, averaging 0.6 points and 0.6 rebounds in limited action as a rookie.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.