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South Carolina WBB honors three seniors. Each has a decision to make about her future

The lights at Colonial Life Arena dimmed. Video of their teammates flashed on the jumbotron as coach Dawn Staley looked up with admiration from the center-court logo.

The announced sellout crowd of 18,000 fans rose to their feet, as each senior was escorted to Staley’s side, smiling or wiping tears from their faces along the way.

All three of South Carolina’s seniors — center Kamilla Cardoso, guard Te-Hina Paopao and reserve Sakima Walker — were honored ahead of USC’s final regular season home game versus Tennessee Sunday.

Each of their collegiate basketball careers began elsewhere — Syracuse for Cardoso, Oregon for Paopao and Rutgers for Walker — but their paths converged in Columbia to make way for one of the Gamecocks’ most successful regular seasons in program history.

They could all come back to USC next year, as they are part of the final class able to use the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver to return for a fifth season. Staley said Friday she heard buzz from WNBA personnel about first-round interest in Cardoso and Paopao.

“Hopefully, (the game is) sold out, and they could feel that atmosphere like no other and make a decision to come back,” coach Dawn Staley said Friday with a laugh.

Sunday’s scene offered a stark contrast from last year’s senior day, which featured six players who started their careers with USC (Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere Olivia Thompson and Victaria Saxton) and one graduate transfer (Kierra Fletcher). But then again, everything about this South Carolina team feels different from last year’s — perfect regular-season records aside. And this trio of seniors is a big reason why.

Each elder stateswoman contributes to USC’s success in a unique way.

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso (10) during senior introductions before the Gamecocks played Tennessee in the Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024
South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso (10) during senior introductions before the Gamecocks played Tennessee in the Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Cardoso joined the Gamecocks in 2021 and developed under Boston for two years before stepping into a starting role this season. She has made massive strides, particularly on offense. Where she used to willfully pass on scoring opportunities, she’s now taking the most field goal attempts per 40 minutes of her career and leading USC with 14 points per game (despite missing four games).

Paopao committed to South Carolina in April. She brought three years of Pac-12 starting experience (to a team void of returning starters) and a consistent 3-point shot with her. Paopao has played an integral role in elevating the Gamecocks perimeter shooting accuracy (from No. 170 in the nation last season to No. 2 in the nation this year) and provided this young team with presence of mind in high-intensity game situations. She is the perfect foil to high-energy point guard Raven Johnson, and together they make up the most skilled backcourt duo Staley has ever coached.

Walker came to USC this offseason after playing two years at Rutgers and winning a JUCO national championship with Northwest Florida State in 2023. While the 6-foot-5 center hasn’t seen much playing time behind talented post players like Cardoso, Chloe Kitts, Ashlyn Watkins and Sania Feagin, she makes the most of her time on the court and takes a diligent approach to practice.

Staley said she’s approached conversations with Cardoso, Paopao and Walker about their futures with full transparency.

“You just ask, ‘What are you thinking?’” Staley said. “Then you provide information. I think Kamilla is a lock to be top five (in the WNBA Draft). Pao could get in the first round. Sakima, probably not any looks. That’s what I’m hearing from WNBA personnel. So I give them that information, and then let them decide. Let them sleep on it, process it and figure out what’s best for them. And support it.”

The University of South Carolina’ women’s basketball seniors gather for a photo before the Gamecocks played Tennessee in the Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024
The University of South Carolina’ women’s basketball seniors gather for a photo before the Gamecocks played Tennessee in the Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024