ATHENS, Ga. – From Carolina to Carolina, Allisha Gray hasn’t missed a step as an elite basketball star.
The former Washington County standout picked up right where she left off after transferring from North to South Carolina, and she and her Gamecocks are cruising to secure a fourth consecutive No. 1 seeding in the NCAA Women’s Tournament.
The only thing that’s changed is the number of fans watching her play.
“It’s definitely an eye-opener,” Gray said of the more than 12,000 rabid Gamecocks fans who flock to Colonial Life Arena to support a program that’s become one of the staples atop the polls. “My first time on the court and seeing all those people in the stands, I was like shocked. The fan base here in Carolina is amazing. You normally don’t see that at a women’s game but here they love women’s basketball and I love the fans.”
Fresh after a season getting to know Dawn Staley’s program from the bench, Gray has started all 19 games this season for South Carolina (18-1, 8-0 SEC) and ranks third on the team in scoring (13.6) and rebounding (4.5) per game and leads in assists (50).
On Thursday night at Georgia, she overcame a slow start and scored South Carolina’s last seven points of the first half en route to a 18-point night in a 62-44 Gamecocks victory. Her 3-pointer and layup off a steal on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions turned a sketchy eight-point lead with four minutes left into a comfortable cushion for South Carolina to coast home.
Gray’s believes she’s a more complete player than she was when she earned first team All-ACC as a sophomore for the Tar Heels.
“I’m a better defensive player now,” she said. “They made me lose weight and I feel like I have more stamina. Coach Staley’s taught me how to be patient and not press in games. If my shot’s not going she tells me to let the game come to me.”
Gray knows a little something about patience and sitting out a whole season. She missed her entire senior year at Washington County after reconstructive knee surgery.
But being healthy and forced to watch her new teammates play last year when she knew she might be the ingredient to help them over the top was a different challenge.
“It was definitely hard sitting out a full year with the type of team we were last year,” she said. “But I definitely think the wait was worth it. I was able to enhance my game and work on stuff and become a better player.”
Gray never had any second thoughts about switching Carolinas. After reaching the Elite Eight in her freshman season with the Tar Heels – beating top-seeded South Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen to get there – the program was hammered by academic misconduct infractions from before Gray ever showed up in Chapel Hill, N.C. Rather than play under that cloud, she needed a new home and found it closer to home.
“It was hard to leave behind some great friends at UNC, but at the end of the day you’ve got to look out for yourself and what’s best for your career and I definitely think this was a good move for me,” she said. “You want to win games, win conference championships, have a chance to play in the Final Four and for national championships. I knew coming to South Carolina gave me that chance to do it.”
The Gamecocks have been No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons. They got knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen last year and in 2014 and reached the Final Four in 2015. Gray believes this team has what it takes to reach the Final Four in Dallas and challenge the reign of unbeatable Connecticut.
“I finally feel like we’re gelling together and everybody is playing their role and we’re definitely showing the hard work that we do on the court,” Gray said. “I think this team is capable. We play with a lot of heart and hopefully we’ll be in Dallas.”
Gray’s value to the Gamecocks was never more apparent than in recent weeks when an ankle injury by star forward A’ja Wilson forced Gray to switch away from her natural shooting guard position and the No. 5 Gamecocks never lost a beat.
With Wilson returning when the Gamecocks played undefeated and No. 4 Mississippi State on Monday, Gray moved back to her old spot and scored 16 of her 17 points during a second-half rally. She also made the defensive play of the game after a missed 3-pointer when she raced back down the court and challenged a transition layup to preserve a one-point Gamecock lead with 54 seconds remaining in the 64-61 win.
She was named SEC co-player of the week for her performance.
“I’ll really do anything for the team,” Gray said. “It was really fun playing the four, but having A’ja back is good and gets us back to our regularly scheduled programming. It was nice getting back to my original position out on the wing.”
Thursday night marked the second time Gray has experienced a homecoming of sorts. Fans from Washington County chartered a bus to go see her play Georgia Tech in Atlanta her freshman season at North Carolina. She had another crowd of well-wishers in Athens for her playing debut at Stegeman Coliseum, including her parents and brother, A.J., who is a starting safety at Georgia Tech.
“My first time playing at Georgia, so it’s nice to see family and friends from high school and home,” she said.
The SEC only boasts two currently ranked teams, but the Gamecocks will get to see where they stand against the best in 18 days when they play No. 1 UConn on the road. By then the Huskies should be trying to win their unprecedented 100th consecutive game.
“In the SEC, anybody can be beat you on any night and we don’t overlook anybody,” Gray said of avoiding looking ahead. “We’ll just go in, play our game and give it our all. Their streak is their streak and we’re not trying to focus on that. Just go in and play Carolina basketball.”