April 5, 2024 

MiLaysia Fulwiley is South Carolina’s bounce-back ‘generational talent’

'When you have a player like Lay, you have to let her go be who she is'

South Carolina freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley is a lot of things. She’s a late-game hero; a Columbia, S.C., native; an elite finisher at the rim; a “generational talent”; and maybe even South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley‘s on-court mini-me.

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Before she became a Hall of Fame coach, Staley was a crafty point guard at Virginia, in the ABL and in the WNBA. She was a great passer and a defensive force, despite her 5’6 frame. And similar to her current freshman guard, she could drive to the basket.

“I think we’re both fearless when it comes to playing on both sides of the basketball. I was a high-risk, high-reward type of player until I got a little bit older and understood and valued the basketball,” Staley told reporters on Tuesday. “MiLaysia is probably pretty similar to me in my freshman year, where I think I averaged five turnovers. She takes care of the ball a little bit more than that.”

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And although Staley sees the similarities, she also said that Fulwiley has a skillset she didn’t have at that age. According to Staley, Fulwiley is more athletic, unselfish and creative with the basketball.

“So when it comes to the edge of being a generational talent, she edges me out by far,” Staley said with a smile.

“Generational talent” has been the phrase Staley has used to describe Fulwiley for a long time. Staley extended a college offer to Fulwiley in the seventh grade. Fulwiley would go on to attend W.J. Keenan High School, just 10 miles away from where the Gamecocks play.

“It’s really a dream. Everybody who stays home, they stay home for the exact reason I stayed home: to win and to feel the love. To have both is unbelievable, and it never really happens,” Fulwiley told reporters on Thursday.

Homegrown talent has proven invaluable for Staley over the years. In 2017, Columbia native and fellow generational talent A’ja Wilson led the Gamecocks to their first NCAA title. And Fulwiley and sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins grew up playing together. Fulwiley said playing with her childhood friend makes this season all the more special.

South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley shoots a left-handed layup as an LSU defender arrives too late to get a hand up.
South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley (12) lays the ball in during the SEC Tournament championship game against LSU at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., on March 10, 2024. (Photo credit: Todd Van Emst/SEC)

On the court, Fulwiley makes layups that are hard to fathom. Her drives are hyper-athletic, and she has strong intangibles and a high basketball IQ. She’s a tough defender as well, forcing turnovers and transitioning to offensive opportunities.

But even more than her elite finishes, Staley said Fulwiley is a “bounce-back player.” When she’s done something wrong, she soaks it in and works hard to fix it the next time. That level of maturity and grit is uncommon for most freshmen.

In November, South Carolina beat North Carolina by seven points, one of the Gamecocks’ slimmest margins of the year. Fulwiley played just three minutes. Staley told reporters she wasn’t impressed with her freshman’s defensive effort, so she benched her.

Five months later, the teams faced off again in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This time, the Gamecocks won by 47 points, and Fulwiley led the team with 20 points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes.

“It was a defining moment. It was a moment in which some growth took place because she’s so used to playing, she’s so used to participating,” Staley told reporters ahead of the second matchup. “She’s got to play some D. And she has taken it upon herself to play some defense. Her on-ball defense has — it’s getting to the point where it’s really, really, really good … She just said, ‘I’m going to be different.’”

Now, Fulwiley says defense is her “main focus” the moment she gets on the court.

Related reading: Getting defensive has made all the difference for South Carolina freshman Tessa Johnson

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But like many players who have recently transitioned from high school to top college programs, Fulwiley has had to go from having the ball on every possession to coming off the bench as the third guard.

“When you’re coming off of being the best player, or one of the top best players … always having the ball, it was kind of hard for me to just settle down and understand my role on the team,” Fulwiley told reporters ahead of the Final Four. “I think I did a good job with that, just being myself and just doing anything I need to do to win.”

Fulwiley’s more veteran teammates have noticed her transition and encouraged her to keep trusting herself and the system.

“She trusted the process. She’s still trusting it. She’s going to ride her journey,” senior leader Te-Hina Paopao told reporters at the SEC Tournament. “When you have a player like Lay, you have to let her go be who she is, let her ride the wave.”

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Although Fulwiley admits she gets nervous, she never loses belief in playing like herself. And unlike many freshmen, it works for her.

“My role on this team is just go out there and be who I am. When I go on the court, I feel like I do whatever’s asked from my coach,” Fulwiley told media after putting up a career-high 24 points and winning the SEC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

The Gamecocks face off against NC State in the Final Four at 7 p.m. ET on Friday. They’ll need their “generational” freshman to play like herself to win what’s bound to be a gritty game.

Editor’s note (April 5, 6:15 p.m. ET): The Next‘s Rob Knox contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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