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South Carolina’s “Freshies” Have One Last Job In Them

GREENVILLE, SC - MARCH 27: Zia Cooke #1 and Brea Beal #12 of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate in the closing minutes of their victory over the Maryland Terrapins during the Elite Eight round of the 2023 NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament held at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 27, 2023 in Greenville, South Carolina.
Jacob Kupferman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Consider the three types of competitors. You will find them here, in this perfect video starring the all-grown-up members of 2019's top-ranked recruiting class attempting to answer a simple question: Do you remember the one home game you lost in your time at South Carolina? First, there is Brea Beal, who remembers the loss and takes it in stride, proud of its aberrance. "It's a blessing," she says, to have lost only the one. (Her walk-on teammate Olivia Thompson belongs to the same camp.) Then there is Aliyah Boston, who answers the question before it's even asked. Of course she remembers. It haunts this perfectionist. Curse that loss! She will rue it on her deathbed. Best of all, there is Zia Cooke, blessed with a guard's memory and blissfully unaware.

When Cooke, Beal, Boston, Thompson, and forward Laeticia Amihere arrived at South Carolina as freshmen in 2019, they named their group chat "the Freshies." The nickname has endured for four years—through three trips to the Final Four and to a national championship win last April. (Thompson said someone proposed changing the group chat name before their sophomore year. "But it never went further.") The goofy nickname works for its irony now; where "Freshies" evokes naïveté and inexperience, this is a core that's developed so incredibly well in four years. Beal melds strength and craft as an elite defender now. Cooke, once a huge fan of driving into traffic with no plan, takes wise shots and makes them. Boston on defense answers questions before they're asked. Today, I watched a video of an outfielder lucking into a no-look highlight reel snag. Boston's great talent—fully realized this season—is to make everything look like a routine flyout.

The Freshies' growth was plain to see all year, but especially so in their Elite Eight win over an exhausted Maryland team on Monday; South Carolina's opponents don't lose so much as they erode. Much of the credit for the Gamecocks' style of attack goes to the bench, but the starting Freshies stood out, and Dawn Staley has credited them often this season for buying into the strategy of rolling four lines, even when it's led their individual stats to take a hit. "The Freshies have sacrificed individually at one stage of their career for the greater good of our team," she said on Tuesday. The poise and confidence they played with against Maryland left this longtime follower of theirs feeling satisfied, if a little wistful. They'll only be together one or two games longer.

One of the sport's charms is that even the stars stick around for four years. Four years feels like forever until the four years are over. I'm choking up, man! I'm getting emotional! For as long as I've been writing about women's basketball on this website, South Carolina has meant the Freshies. Their last campaign will wrap up in some form this weekend; they play Iowa tonight for a spot in Sunday's national championship game. Two more wins and the Gamecocks become the 10th team in NCAA D-I women's history to pull off an undefeated season. As if to signal the true end of an era, Boston just got her braces off. I think I will end this blog and head over to the retirement home.

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