South Carolina freshman guard Talaysia Cooper is doing what she can to aid USC’s reigning champion women’s basketball team.
Part of Cooper’s development, head coach Dawn Staley said, involves her learning new aspects of the game. And she’s doing so in the most fundamental way possible: by asking questions.
“When you’re asking questions, you are evolving, you’re progressing,” Staley said last month. “And they’re good questions. They’re not just brown-nosing questions, they’re really good questions about details.”
Cooper has spent time at both point guard and shooting guard this season for the Gamecocks. She has scored 10 or more points twice — including a season-high 15 points against Texas A&M in the team’s SEC opener. She’s averaging 4.8 points per game in 14 games off the bench.
“It makes me think, but I know it’s just helping me get to where I need to be,” Cooper said about playing both guard spots.
Cooper joined the Gamecocks from East Clarendon Middle-High School in Turbeville, South Carolina as a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American. Cooper is no stranger to scoring the basketball, scoring more than 3,000 points at East Clarendon.
She has also shown activity on the defensive side of the ball while wearing a Gamecock uniform, often getting steals that turn into fast-break points. Her on-ball defense is aided with her long wingspan and quick hands.
Talent isn’t a question for the curious Cooper, but finding consistent playing time in the crowded and experienced guard rotation is the natural challenge she’s facing. This isn’t uncommon for freshmen in Staley’s system, especially at the guard spot.
“The window of opportunity for her to play is small, so when she does play, she has to do something with it,” Staley said. “Or else it closes quickly because we have other players that just step right in, and they’re able to do what they do.”
Graduate senior Kierra Fletcher and redshirt-freshman Raven Johnson take up the bulk of the minutes at point guard. Senior guard and leading scorer Zia Cooke sometimes handles the ball, but mostly sees time at the two-guard.
There have been times this season where Cooper has played 20 or more minutes, times where she has played fewer than 10 and times where she did not enter the game at all.
Cooper has had success on the court against the team’s nonconference opponents, though the rigor of SEC play has taken control of USC’s remaining schedule.
“Once we add her approach and her preparation to this game, it’s gonna be easier for her to do what she does best,” Staley said. “So that’s gonna take some time.”
Cooper is learning her place on the team and continues to inquire about ways to get better. Bringing the ball up is one of her primary duties, so she wants to be cautious with the way that she handles the rock.
“As a freshman, they’re gonna pick on you,” Cooper said. “They’ll take the ball from you. My biggest goal is to not let them do that.”
Cooper’s game has come along nicely behind closed doors, at least to Cooke.
Cooke recalled former Gamecock Tyasha Harris giving her guidance when she first arrived, and now she has the opportunity to do the same for the inquisitive Cooper.
“She’s one that always comes to me asking me questions,” Cooke told The State. “She always wants to know my opinion on things, and I try to sit her down and have conversations with her the same way Ty used to do with me. Just give her the knowledge of the game for as long as I’m here to help her.”
Cooper is one of the team’s three true freshmen, with Ashlyn Watkins and Chloe Kitts the others.
Three members of South Carolina’s 2019 recruiting class — Cooke, Brea Beal and Aliyah Boston — started in each game they played as freshmen. The circumstances were a bit different, though, because many key players from the previous year had departed.
This year’s USC returned four of five starters and 10 players total from the national championship run.
“Aliyah’s not Aliyah four years ago,” Staley said. “She had some holes in her game. Zia had some holes in her game. Brea Beal, holes. Now, you’re seeing the finished product. And sometimes, that’s hard for a young person to see. They made some of the same mistakes you’re making right now, and she’s just gotta work through it.”
With help from her more experienced teammates, Cooper has been able to keep things in perspective.
“Keep going,” her older teammates have told her. “It’s a process.”