Dawn Staley Getty South Carolina Gamecocks
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For Dawn Staley, having a sense of unity is the recipe for success on the basketball court and in life. The South Carolina head coach fires up her grill every week to practice what she constantly preaches to her team.

"I got a couple of friends who live in our neighborhood. Coach [Lisa] Boyer -- our associate head coach -- and the softball coach Beverly Smith. We cook Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Staley told CBS Sports. "We spend an hour, hour and a half together. It helps you decompress, energize and get ready for the next day. It's cool knowing you have friends and that you enjoy each other's company."

Everybody brings something different to the table. Staley is a pescetarian and grilled salmon is her go-to dish. Boyer is a big fan of salads and usually brings a healthy option. Smith cooks a variety of meals, but Staley is particularly impressed by a delicious baked vegetables recipe that Smith refuses to disclose.

Her players cook together too, but in a different way. The Gamecocks finished last season with a 35-2 overall record, went wire-to-wire ranking No. 1 in the country, and earned the 2022 NCAA championship. They are now entering the season as the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll for the third consecutive year. There are many ingredients for their success, but Staley says the main one is chemistry.

"I just think that what makes us pretty special is the close genuine bond that our team has. They're so inclusive of each other," Staley said. "I think that's the main thing that we should talk about because it's what's missing in sports. It's that genuine, organic love for one another."

The coach said she rarely has to deal with off the court issues between her players, and she credits two specific leaders for keeping things running smoothly.

"Victaria Saxton and Aliyah Boston, they've seen it all in their three years here and they don't want anything to interfere with our success," Staley said. 

Both have different roles in the roster and unique leadership styles that focus on quality relationships with their teammates. 

What most people see from Boston is her leadership on the court. The 6-foot-5 forward led her team in points, rebounds, blocks and steals last season. She averaged a double-double with 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game while registering 30 double-doubles on the season. Boston has been the Lisa Leslie Center of the Year for the three consecutive years, and was last season's Naismith Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. 

She's an intimidating opponent to face, but off the court Boston is known for her gentle personality. 

"She's very kind. She's respectful to how other people feel. There is a way that she governs our team and it's somewhat individual, like she'll talk to different individuals," Staley described. "Because of her relationship with everyone, when she speaks to the entire team it's an immediate respect. It's a mutual respect. It's a leadership style that's non-threatening and everybody can get on board."

Saxton is also a solid player. The 6-foot-2 forward was second on the team in blocks and rebounds, but her most important attribute is how she makes everybody else better. Staley calls her the "glue" of the team, and said that she recognized her gift when she was recruiting her six years ago.

"I told her mother she was going to be a captain. I just saw her energy, saw how she cared for her family members," Staley said. "I don't know how she continues to balance all of it because she is very family oriented, she talks to her mother probably 100 times a day and she's got time for us... She just has the magic touch when it comes to making everybody feel good."

Saxton recently got moved to the three position, a decision that Staley made in order to prepare her for the next level of her basketball career. The coach wants her to work on her 15-foot shot and her 3-point shot. Last season, Saxton only attempted one shot from beyond the arc in 37 games. 

"She is very smart, her outside shot is pretty consistent," Staley said. "She hasn't done it in her career at South Carolina but that's a must. That's something that we've been working with her over the past two years. Now we have her on the perimeter, she has to take those shots if she's doing that."

Saxton is not the only player who is being asked to expand her repertoire. The point guard position is one of the main things the team is still figuring out now that Destanni Henderson has moved on to the WNBA. Last season when Henderson missed three games because of a leg injury, power forward Laeticia Amihere ran the point. Staley said Amihere is versatile enough to play any position, and this year she will spend more time on the perimeter. 

Zia Cooke spent a significant amount of time at the point during preseason. She has mostly played shooting guard for the Gamecocks but was a point guard in high school.

"She won't be asked to do it full time but it's been great seeing her initiate our offense and getting an understanding of how the position works at this level," Staley said. "It's an opportunity for us to show her versatility for the next level."

Redshirt freshman Raven Johnson could be another option for the point. The 2021 Naismith Girls High School Basketball POY suffered a season-ending left knee injury early last season on Nov. 12. Then there is Kierra Fletcher, a grad transfer from Georgia Tech who started four years for the Buzz but missed last season because of a foot injury. 

Staley said both players are not at full strength yet, so the key focus right now is getting them healthy.

"Our point guard position is the position we are trying to get healthy," Staley said. "Like completely healthy – 100% healthy where we don't have any minute restrictions, where we can get them on the court and they can run our basketball team."

Figuring out a plan for the offense is a must for the Gamecocks. While they were a defensive powerhouse last season, their offense left a lot to be desired. South Carolina had 11 games with 65 points or less, including three under 60 points. One of those was an ugly 49-33 victory against Miami in the second round of the NCAA Tournament

Staley said she doesn't think that, for the most part, her team was taking bad shots. However, she said it's important to create rhythm. Some of the main changes for this upcoming season will help with that. 

"We are trying to play a little bit quicker than we've played. We are pushing, we are passing," Staley said. "We are just trying to alleviate some of the stress that comes with halfcourt basketball and having two point guards who really haven't been in our program a long time."

The versatility of the players in the roster will also be key in filling in the gaps. South Carolina has more bigs than guards, so Staley tries to use their skill sets in different ways. 

"When we talk about positionless basketball, this is kinda what we envision," she said. "We are forced to do it to a certain degree, but we got the people that have the skill set to do it, so we're pretty good."

The Gamecocks are looking to become the first program to win back-to-back titles since UConn in 2015-16. Staley said that the taste of success from last year did not change her team's mentality. The Gamecocks are used to playing in the spotlight and the coach said she doesn't think they will "shortchange" themselves by not playing their best against every opponent. Winning another national championship is always at the forefront of their minds. 

"We'll play under that pressure of having to win," Staley said. "I've been very fortunate that we've had that type of team the past three seasons. It's the habit that we've created over the past three years that we must just continue."