The New Girl

Mar 31 2017
Kaela Davis
University of South Carolina
Mar 31 2017

There has never been a better time to be a Gamecock than right now.

I’ll try to put it in perspective: South Carolina has two teams in the Final Fours of the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments … in the same year … which is the most that one school can possibly have. That’s 25% of all the teams in both Final Fours. So I guess if you’re a South Carolina hater, you’ll have to root twice as hard against us this week.

O.K., O.K. I’m done gloating. Forgive me for doing a little extra celebrating.

But I just had to. I’m giddy right now — my whole team is. Because this is a big, big deal for our school. Personally, I’m not taking this moment for granted because I know how special it is. It took a lot of hard work to get here. So many things had to go right this season. It’s crazy to think that one year ago the Gamecocks were in the tournament as usual, but I couldn’t play — I had to sit out the whole season after transferring from Georgia Tech. Being part of this kind of success … still just seemed like a fantasy.

I remember watching last year’s tournament and wishing so badly that I could suit up and play — to contribute something on the court. Basically, I was on the team … but I wasn’t on the team. I certainly wasn’t on the court with the team.

“You are on this team.” I had to repeat to myself. “You’re a part of this team.”

But it really didn’t feel like it. How could it? The team was on the court playing. I wasn’t. Nothing really complicated about it.

When I made the decision to leave Georgia Tech at the end of 2015, there were so many unknowns — including who I wanted to play for. I didn’t know much about the South Carolina program, but there was something about the way the Gamecocks played the game. It was just like … as soon as I watched them I knew that they were playing the kind of basketball that I wanted to play.

My dad, Antonio Davis, played for four teams in 13 seasons in the NBA. He has shaped my basketball career more than anybody else. And I was lucky enough to learn a lot from him about the dedication and training it takes to succeed at the highest level.

But all the years of shooting drills and sprints in the gym still don’t really prepare you for the first time you walk into a new locker room.

As the new girl.

It’s one of those things that’s is different for everybody who goes through it. It just has to be experienced.

My first big interaction with the girls on the South Carolina team came last summer. I already knew what everyone else knew about this program: the Gamecocks were good. But a good basketball program is one thing … what I didn’t know was how I was going to actually bond with my new coaches and teammates.

It was early in June — which is generally a weird time to be on campus. Pretty much everybody had gone home after the end of the semester, so everything was quiet and mostly empty. I was anxious. There’s this nervous voice that’s always in the back of your head, constantly asking, What if this was the wrong decision?

Then we got on the basketball court.

John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports

It’s kind of hard to explain, but I felt this immediate connection — to my new teammates, to Columbia — as soon as I started playing. Not even so much about basketball. Just being able to talk and hang out and be myself … everyone was so welcoming. I was comfortable.

Switching schools is supposed to be this gigantic, nerve-racking event, but for me it was smooth. And I think that says a lot about the how the athletic programs run here. I was accepted into the locker room so early that, by the time the season began in November, I honestly felt like I had been playing on this team for years. Allisha Gray was a junior transfer, too, so there was even another new kid to talk to!

We all just clicked. And it happened pretty quickly.

I remember that A’ja Wilson (our court leader and leading scorer) and I would always get yelled at early on — probably more than anyone else — about how we weren’t communicating enough on the court. But we were communicating. Just not with our mouths.

We’d get to the sideline after a defensive stop or something, and coach would be waiting for us, shaking her head.

“I didn’t hear you call out a switch with Kaela on that screen, A’ja.”

I’d step forward.

“I heard her, coach.”

“How did you hear her if she didn’t say anything?”

[Looks at A’ja. Then back to coach. Shrugs.]

Then Coach would give us a look and chuckle as she walked out of the huddle.

“… Y’all are weird.”

Call it telepathy or something, I don’t know. But A’ja and I have this bond. Just one of those things.

It’s funny, because we may not get vocal with each other a lot on the court, but we’re constantly talking off of it. When I first met A’ja, I thought: Oh, wow, what a nice, sweet person. And then, over the course of the season, I watched her transform over and over again into the most intense motivator. She was constantly getting us fired up and routinely delivering emotional speeches in the locker room.

During the second half of our victory over Florida State in the Elite Eight on Monday, A’ja was playing really intensely. At one point the ref came over to the sideline to talk to Coach Staley — but she kind of directed what she had to say to our entire bench. She told us in no uncertain terms that we had better keep A’ja under control or she was going to get T’d up.

Secretly, I was proud.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP IMAGES

During the regular season, we won way more than we lost. But I started to feel a little off before the UConn game in the middle of February. I felt like I wasn’t scoring enough, wasn’t good enough on defense — just wasn’t playing my position the way I needed to. It was a big game and we lost, and afterward I had this feeling that I was spiraling downward. And every day I thought a little more about the tournament, and wondering if I would get my game back.

When I arrived at South Carolina, winning a championship was the biggest thing on my mind. And now it was getting close to put-up-or-shut-up time. The stakes were getting higher and I had to help my team be successful … or else. I was not going to let my decision to leave Georgia Tech haunt me.

So I put in some extra time in the gym. I asked my parents for advice about breaking out of my slump. I talked to my brother. I called two of my friends I had grown up with in Georgia just to get some outside perspective on why I felt so off. I needed to get my head together in time for March.

I was in my dorm in late February when I got a message from Coach Staley.

“Meet me outside,” it read. “Let’s take a walk.”

We walked from my dorm to a Starbucks on campus.

“Let’s figure this out,” Coach said. She’s always very direct, but in a way that’s not too intimidating.

Transferring to a new school puts a strain on the player-coach relationship. You have to figure out how to communicate on the fly. Up until that moment, I didn’t really have a handle on how Coach would deal with me if I fell into a slump.

Coach Staley has a reputation around Columbia … around South Carolina … around college basketball, really. And, at least for people locally who really know her, her reputation goes way beyond basketball. She’s a force in the community. And you can tell she’s really genuine just from the way she tries to give back to the university. She’s such a powerful presence that you can’t help but sort of be in awe of how far above and beyond she goes to represent the state.

So it was a good feeling to sit down with her that day and finally understand how much she cares about me and all of the other players on this team. I didn’t even have to come to her for her to realize I needed a little help.

Really, that sit-down was all it took. After that, I was able to relax and enjoy playing basketball again. And knowing that I could always go and talk to Coach Staley — just talk and have a conversation like regular people, like friends, even — it really helped me so much.

That was the moment, I think, where everything fell into place. Before that day I knew we were a good team with a good coach. Afterwards I felt like we were actually in the process of becoming something special — a team that could be talked about long after this season ends.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP Images

It’s a relief to be able to look back and put the lingering questions I had about my transfer behind me. There’s no doubt anymore that I did the right thing by coming to South Carolina. I’m very grateful for all the support I had from my parents and the rest of my family. And I’m thrilled to be playing a part in such a special thing for the university. We had to fly directly to Dallas after the win. I haven’t been back to campus, but I can imagine what it feels like at the moment.

There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen next, but I know we’re ready for anything.

The only thing I regret is that I didn’t get here sooner.

But that’s not even a real regret. The timing is working out just like it should. For me, but more importantly, for South Carolina — for both teams.

Kaela Davis
University of South Carolina