College Sports

This Gamecock is ‘finally’ playing like the star Dawn Staley saw three years ago

Confidence key to Te’a Cooper and Kiki Herbert Harrigan’s big performance

The University of South Carolina Gamecocks beat Alabama, 62-59, in the Colonial Life Arena.
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The University of South Carolina Gamecocks beat Alabama, 62-59, in the Colonial Life Arena.

Go-to player. All-American. WNBA star.

Dawn Staley sees all of those things in Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. At 6-foot-2 with a smooth baseline jumpshot and an uncanny ability to thunderously reject shots, the junior forward has a potential Staley recognized years ago when she was a four-star high school prospect.

“Her athleticism, speed, perimeter shooting and competitiveness will have an immediate impact on our team and our pursuit of a national championship,” Staley said of Herbert Harrigan when she officially signed in Nov. 2015.

And Gamecock fans have seen flashes of it too — she came up big as a freshman in the SEC tournament off the bench, then started the next year and earned all-tournament honors. But those successes have been countered by several issues; at times, the competitiveness Staley mentioned has boiled over and impacted Herbert Harrigan’s play for the worse.

“What we have to do is keep her emotions in check,” Staley said of Herbert Harrigan at the beginning of the season. “She’s gonna be a big playmaker for us, but at this point, she’s very easily tipped.”

As a freshman, Herbert Harrigan averaged 3.61 fouls per 40 minutes while playing a little over 16 minutes per game. As a sophomore, her playing time stayed essentially the same, but her foul rate jumped to 4.73 per 40 minutes.

Across the board, Herbert Harrigan’s numbers improved slightly from her first to second seasons. But without more playing time and with those concerns about composure, she failed to make a huge stride forward despite Staley’s best efforts to make her to play to her potential.

“She got on me, pretty much challenged me to do what I know I can do and she knows I can do,” Herbert Harrigan said last year.

Heading into 2018-2019, Staley didn’t seem to have much of a choice — with the graduation of A’ja Wilson, she needed Herbert Harrigan to start and play significant minutes in the frontcourt. With redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings limited by injury to start the year, Herbert Harrigan was even more essential, and she started the first five games of the season, averaging 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest.

But the Gamecocks’ surplus of talented guards, the return of Jennings and a lack of consistent high-level performances wound up forcing Herbert Harrigan to come off the bench for three games, averaging fewer than 15 minutes of playing time in that span.

Against Appalachian State, she quietly returned to the starting five, then exploded for 19 points and 15 rebounds in a double-overtime win against Purdue. A few games later, she came up big again with 11 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks against Texas A&M, then 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocks against Alabama. In all those games, she played more than 30 minutes.

“I just use the bench as a motivator,” Staley said. “She’s not doing what she needs to do, she’s gotta come out of the game and I think she understands that. I think furthermore she’s gotta prep better. (Before A&M and Alabama), she’s prepped a lot differently than our Furman game, and you see it in the statistics, you see it in her growing confidence, so hopefully it will stick.”

What’s more, Herbert Harrigan’s foul rate is at its lowest point in her three seasons.

“Just being confident, like Coach said, and just keeping my emotions in check. Not letting people affect my play,” Herbert Harrigan said of the change that’s sparked her improved play.

Thursday’s game against Florida, however, showed how hard it can be for Herbert Harrigan to maintain the momentum of that good play — she had nine points off 4-of-6 shooting in the first quarter, but four quick fouls limited her to just 13 minutes of playing time.

None of those fouls were particularly bad, but they meant she ended the game with just 11 points, one rebound and one block, and for a player like Herbert Harrigan, those numbers on the stat sheet can have a real impact, Staley said.

“Kiki’s very visual and a tangible being. When she sees 18 (points) and 9 (rebounds against Alabama) after having a double-double against Texas A&M, I think it allows her to continue to grow and be confident out there on the floor,” Staley said.

Still, Jennings said she has noticed a significant difference in Herbert Harrigan’s play as of late, especially on offense, where she’s shot 58 percent over the last four games.

“She’s got her stamina up, she’s shooting the ball really well right now, and I think it just creates more versatility in our post players,” Jennings said.

Whether or not Herbert Harrigan can keep up her strong play and stay on the court for extended minutes against LSU this Sunday remains to be seen. But after two years of waiting, Staley’s excited to have everyone see the All-American she’s always recognized.

“I’m proud of (Herbert Harrigan), I’m proud that it’s finally kicking in that she is this type of player. This is what we saw three years ago. Finally, we’re getting to see it on a more consistent basis,” Staley said.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.