The official secrets behind South Carolina's historic recruiting class

Dawn Staley says she sees Laeticia Amihere in a role similar to the one A'ja Wilson starred in. Courtesy Laeticia Amihere

Laeticia Amihere traveled from her home in Canada to Columbia, South Carolina, where she found a taste of the Ivory Coast.

Amihere, a 6-foot-3 forward and the No. 10 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2019 class, visited the University of South Carolina campus in October, and -- among other perks -- she was treated to a meaningful meal.

Her mom, Georgette, is from the Ivory Coast, a fact that was not lost on Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley.

"We searched high and low to make sure they had an African meal," Staley said. "We knew there was an annual African festival in town, and we found a caterer. As it turned out, the caterer spoke [Georgette's] dialect."

Laeticia, whose nickname is "The Black Queen," was appreciative of the lengths Staley had gone to make her and her mom comfortable.

"It was really considerate," Amihere said. "It was amazing because my mom chatted with [the caterer] the entire time and shared laughs and recipes.

"One thing that has always been important to my mom is me remembering my roots. It was great to hear where I could find some cultural things in the area."

One thing's for sure: Amihere won't have to look far to find talent in the area.

During a head-spinning 17 days in November, Staley went from having a single commit -- Olivia Thompson, a 5-8 shooting guard from Lexington (South Carolina) -- to having a five-player class that is ranked No. 1 for the 2019 class and is one of the best in women's basketball history.

Thompson, Amihere, Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Breanna Beal swear they weren't working together. Each player vows she made her own decision, for her own reasons. But all point to their relationships with South Carolina coaches, and how the coaches went the extra mile for their official visits.

"Once they come on campus, we make it really hard for them to say no to us," Staley said. "We make [the visits] personal for them."

Aliyah Boston

A native of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Boston left her hometown at age 12 and went to Massachusetts to pursue her basketball career.

Boston and her sister moved in with an aunt and attended Worcester Academy, where she became a two-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year, averaging 21.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, 6.2 blocks and 2.5 assists as a junior.

The 6-4 post player who is ranked third in the class also became a two-time USA Basketball gold medalist. She was the last of the five players to commit to South Carolina.

"I prayed a lot," said Boston, who is interested in studying communications. "South Carolina felt like home."

One of the things that made it feel like home was the connection she felt with the players. At one point during her visit, they took her out to a Japanese restaurant ... and fun ensued.

"I don't know exactly how it happened, but we got into a dance-off in the restaurant," Boston said. "We were leaving, and there was music playing, so we started dancing. The [men and women] at the next table then started dancing, too.

"Everyone in the restaurant started looking and laughing and clapping."

Staley, who was not present for the impromptu competition, said she got emotional when Boston chose South Carolina over Connecticut, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

"I have a really good relationship with Aliyah, but I didn't know if she was strong enough to come here because she was going against the masses," Staley said. "The masses thought she was headed to another school, and for her to choose us almost brought me to tears.

"She will not settle for anything besides winning, and she doesn't care about stats or status."

Zia Cooke

Winner of two gold medals while playing with Boston on Team USA, Cooke averaged 24 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists as a junior and led Rogers to an Ohio state title.

"Zia brings a killer mentality," Staley said of the 5-9 point guard ranked third in the class. "She can score almost at will. She has great court vision and can handle the ball with best of them.

"Defensively, she's a communicator. She's cerebral, and she has an insatiable desire to be the best point guard ever."

As part of her recruiting visit, Cooke and her parents went to Staley's house, where the players on the team had gathered.

"It felt like home," Cooke said. "I'm kind of a shy person, but around these girls, I was able to be me. They were singing and dancing, and I was singing and dancing, too."

The weekend of Cooke's visit happened to fall on her dad's birthday. At one point in the festivities, Staley surprised the Cooke family with a red velvet birthday cake.

"It was very thoughtful," Cooke said.

Cooke formed a bond with the South Carolina players and coaches.

"I loved how real they were," Cooke said. "I didn't have to pretend I was somebody else. They accepted me for me.

"With Coach Staley, we talked for two hours in her office, and it wasn't boring. I told her what I was looking for in a school, and she told me what she expected from me if I signed."

Laeticia Amihere

At age 15, Amihere became the first Canadian female to dunk in a game. She also led Canada to a bronze medal in the 2017 U19 World Cup, making the all-tournament team even though she was only 16 at the time.

On Oct. 27, 2017, Amihere tore the ACL in her left knee while going up for a layup for King's Christian Collegiate (Oakville, Ontario).

She has since improved her bench press by 60 pounds.

Amihere, who is fluent in French and is interested in studying sports management, said she thought convincing her mother to go with her Gamecocks plan was going to be the toughest component in her recruitment.

"Coming from Canada, my mom was concerned with the racism that we've seen in the States," Amihere said. "My mom raised me to be a powerful black woman.

"But Coach Staley was real with me. She talked a lot about how to make it in the world as a black woman."

Staley's approach worked.

"In 19 years of recruiting, I've never heard this, but her mother said: 'I give you my daughter,'" Staley said. "I took that to heart. She said she was entrusting her daughter to me to help make her a complete person."

On the court, Amihere can defend any position, from point to post.

"We want her to play a role like A'ja Wilson -- outside and inside," said Staley, referencing the No. 1 player selected in the 2018 WNBA draft who also led South Carolina to its only national title, in 2017. "We want [Amihere] to put the ball on the floor and create shots."

Breanna Beal

A three-time all-state player, Beal was named the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017 and again in 2018. She averaged 21.9 points and 10.2 rebounds as a junior. The 6-foot wing and No. 13 prospect started the ball rolling on South Carolina's recruiting run as the first ranked player to commit.

"She's a big guard who can score in a variety of ways," Staley said. "I like her toughness. She can get to the basket and draw fouls, and she's a streaky 3-point shooter.

"Although we recruited her to play the perimeter, she can play multiple positions, and she can post smaller guards."

The Gamecocks went all-out for Beal. South Carolina assistant coach Jolette Law brought in her brother, Mike, who is a friend of Beal's father, Kevin.

As it turned out, Beal and her parents arrived in Columbia on Oct. 4, which is Kevin's birthday. The entire Gamecocks team came out to the airport to sing "Happy Birthday" to Kevin, and that made an impression.

In addition, the coaches knew that Snickers was Breanna's favorite treat, and you can be sure her snack of choice was made available to her at the hotel with a note that read, "Enjoy!"

But it was more than just serenades, caramel, peanuts and milk chocolate that convinced Beal to sign with the Gamecocks. Her mother, Nicole, who is a nurse, paid close attention to what South Carolina offered academically, and Kevin liked what he heard on the basketball side.

Finally, on Nov. 8 -- Beal's 18th birthday -- she announced that she had committed to South Carolina.

"I know it won't be all rainbows," said Beal, who is interested in a career in marketing, business or fashion. "But I just felt a lot of good vibes at South Carolina."

Olivia Thompson

The all-time leading scorer at Lexington High in South Carolina, Thompson was all set to commit -- within 24 hours -- to Lenoir-Rhyne University, a Division II school in Hickory, North Carolina.

But Staley called Thompson's mother just in time to offer her daughter a spot on the roster as a preferred walk-on.

"I was caught off-guard with the offer," said Thompson, who led the state with 105 3-pointers last season. "I was excited, but my heart was set on Lenoir-Rhyne.

"I had to backtrack. I thought about it all day, and, by the end of the day, I decided that South Carolina was what I needed to do."

Thompson, who plans to study business, lives just 30 minutes from the Columbia campus. She had competed at a Gamecocks camp over the summer and impressed Staley.

"Olivia can flat-out shoot the ball," Staley said. "She came to our elite camp, which started at 9 a.m. But she was there at 7:30. By the time camp started, she was drenched in sweat.

"Once we got to know her on a personal level, she is someone I want around me. She is all-in, and I wouldn't be surprised if she earns a scholarship in the near future.

"I knew she loved us -- her family is full of Gamecocks. I find value in her shooting. But she's more than that -- she's a fighter."