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Meet the Baby Gamecocks: Top seed South Carolina hopes its young talent will fuel March Madness run

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It has been a different run of perfection for South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, fueled by a lot of precocious, talented young players who make it difficult at times to know exactly what comes next.

“It feels a little bit different because they're so young,” said Staley, who won NCAA titles in 2017 and 2022. “I mean, it's like every day is a new day.”

Freshmen MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson and sophomores Chloe Kitts and Ashlyn Watkins have pushed the Gamecocks to the No. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed and a 32-0 mark. The team is six victories away from the 10th perfect championship run in women's college basketball.

It's a vast change from a year ago when Staley's group, led by All-Americans Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, was coming off an NCAA title and dripping with college experience. Their bid for back-to-back championships ended with a 77-73 loss to Iowa in the Final Four.

“Last year was more like groundhog day: you just kind of get through the regular season and get to the Final Four because they knew what they had to do,” Staley said. “This team, they just start over every day, every day is something new.”

Take Fulwiley, who Staley offered a scholarship when she was a seventh-grader. She grabbed attention right away with a full-court drive and a behind the back finish in Paris as the Gamecocks throttled Notre Dame 100-71. The move even caught the attention of NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.

But at practice, Staley has urged Fulwiley to rein in some of the the flash for the simpler, winning play. Those words took hold as Fulwiley showed steadiness in leading the Gamecocks with 24 points in a 79-72 win over defending national champion LSU to take the Southeastern Conference Tournament title. Fulwiley was tournament MVP.

“She’s changing the women’s game on the fly with how she plays and moves on the court," NBA champion Steph Curry said as his, Curry Brand, signed Fulwiley to an NIL deal last week.

Fulwiley is not alone in the South Carolina youth movement. Watkins, the 6-foot-3 sophomore, has gained attention for the first two dunks in program history. She had one at Clemson as a freshman and added another i n a win over Kentucky two months ago.

“Honestly, I think I'm just seeing it, I'm seeing the floor better, I'm looking to score. I'm seeing what my teammates are doing,” Watkins said. “I' communicating better and that's giving me confidence.”

Kitts is a 6-2 sophomore who joined the program in midseason a year ago and mostly sat on the bench behind her experienced teammates. But the practice time a year ago paid off with Kitts starting 28 games this season, averaging 9.2 points and six rebounds.

Kitts acknowledged feeling disappointed on the bench last year. Now, she understands why it had to happen that way. “How I feel now is completely different,” she says. "That's trusting the process and the people around you.”

Tessa Johnson, at 6-foot, has averaged more than 20 minutes the past seven games, up from 12 minutes over the first 25.

“I’m so proud of her,” said Te-Hina Paopao, in her first season at South Carolina as a transfer from Oregon. “Just seeing her blossom on and off the court. I knew her time was coming."

South Carolina's young players were front and center of a late-game skirmish in the SEC finals against LSU. Fulwiley was fouled hard by LSU's Flau'jae Johnson, who then pushed Watkins.

When South Carolina senior Kamilla Cardoso shoved Johnson to the floor, both benches including Kitts and Johnson rushed to the spot before things settled down. Cardoso, Kitts and Johnson were among those ejected. Cardoso will miss South Carolina's NCAA Tournament opener on Friday.

Staley did not anticipate again entering the NCAAs undefeated when the year began. As she's watched her young players grow, she became less surprised as the victories mounted.

“They figure it out,” Staley said. “And it's kind of a scary, but cool, dynamic."