Since Zia Cooke showed up at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have morphed into one of the most dominant teams in all of sports. A three-year starter at point guard, Cooke has been the floor general for a program that has gone 85-7 since she showed up on campus.
The only thing missing is a national championship.
South Carolina went 32-1 in Cooke’s freshman year but the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the start of the pandemic. The Gamecocks reached the Final Four as a No. 2 seed last year only to lose by one point in a heartbreaker to eventual champion Stanford. All Cooke did was score a game-high 25 points in the defeat.
The Gamecocks have bounced back stronger than ever this season. They’re No. 1 in the AP Poll as they enter the SEC tournament at 27–1 overall. While national player of the year front runner Aliyah Boston gets most of the attention, Cooke has continued to be a dynamic offensive guard who can score off the dribble and get her teammates involved. Head coach Dawn Staley already won a national championship with the program behind A’ja Wilson in 2017, and this year’s run through the country’s most difficult schedule again puts South Carolina in position to win it all.
Before Cooke leads South Carolina into the NCAA tournament, she’s working with H&R Block as the face of a campaign to commit $1 million to women’s sports. Cooke chatted with SB Nation about the NIL, her standout career at South Carolina, the legend of Dawn Staley, and the pressure of being the favorite in the NCAA tournament.
SB Nation: What’s it like to be involved in this H&R Block initiative, and why is it so exciting for you?
Zia Cooke: It’s truly a blessing to be a part of this, especially knowing that H&R Block is shining a light on women. And it’s an amazing opportunity for me to be one of those women that they can shine the light on. With me not knowing much about taxes and them helping me with my NIL income, it has truly been a blessing.
SBN: How has the NIL changed things for you? Obviously it’s a new experience for everyone involved. As a former five-star recruit and big-time college basketball player, what have the benefits been for players like yourself?
Cooke: The NIL has been good for me, especially getting to have all the right people around me, my agent, my parents, and even some of my friends that are here for me helping me do it. But it’s also just a lot to manage. I have school, I’m a student-athlete, so sometimes it can be challenging. But with having those great people around me that want the best for me and also, like I said, with H&R Block helping me with my taxes, taking a load off for me definitely helps me out a lot.
SBN: I actually wrote an article about you in 2018 when you were a recruit. You scored 43 points in a high school game and you had Chance the Rapper and Dwyane Wade and all these famous people tweeting about you. I noted started a Twitter account because you were getting so much publicity. What was that like thinking back to that moment?
Cooke: That was definitely a life changing moment for me personally. I got a lot of recognition off that. A lot of people started to know who I was off that, it was definitely a life changing moment. I didn’t even expect what I did to blow up the way it did. I literally just made an Instagram post and a lot of people were reaching out to me about it. I got a lot of love from a lot of celebrities and to this day I still have relationships with great people that have been there ever since that happened. But it’s really crazy because before I went viral, I was kind of already doing the same type of stuff. It just wasn’t caught on camera. So definitely that moment was a life changing moment for me.
SBN: You were one of the top recruits in the country coming out of high school. You choose South Carolina over offers from many other big time programs. Of course, before Dawn Staley came to South Carolina, South Carolina was not like a powerhouse in women’s basketball but has since turned into one. So I’m curious, just going back to your recruiting, what was it about Dawn or about the program itself that attracted you to South Carolina?
Cooke: Oh, man, I have to give all the credit to coach Staley. I think she was the one that actually caught my attention the most. Of course, I love the assistant coaches and the teammates that I had met during that time, but I honestly fell in love with coach Staley and just everything that she told me. She kept it real with me about everything, and I just knew that she would be able to open up new doors for me and help me become the player that I wanted to be.
SBN: I think you started every game your freshman year, and the team was tremendous with only one loss. Then the NCAA tournament gets canceled because of the start of the pandemic. Of course, everyone in the whole world had to deal with the pandemic, but it must have been a wild experience for you and your team because the group was having such a charmed season. What was it like going through that?
Cooke: That was definitely really tough for me. But honestly, I really felt for seniors Kiki (Mikiah Herbert Harrigan) and Ty (Tyasha Harris) because it was their last year. I know that was something that they really wanted to get done and the fact that they couldn’t get it done, that was what hurt me the most. But definitely that moment was crazy for us. It was a surreal moment because we honestly felt like we had the opportunity to win a national championship. We thought we had all the pieces to do it and we just got caught short on that.
SBN: The next year, last season, ended with a one-point loss to Stanford in the Final Four. That was such an amazing game just from a fan’s perspective to see two great teams go at it like that. You played really well, leading the team with 25 points. What do you remember about that game? How have you sort of used that to fuel your success this year?
Cooke: It was a really good game. The whole experience was really good for us. I will say, as you said, it was a pretty good game. For myself, that moment just showed me what we’re capable of, to know that we can make it to the Final Four. We didn’t have Ty or Kiki anymore, and those were the leaders for us. When they ended up leaving, we kind of didn’t know what was next for us, but we just stayed the course. We stayed together as a team and we did the best we could to get where we got.
SBN: South Carolina has played a super, super difficult schedule and still ended the regular season at 27-1 and at No. 1 in the polls. You played UConn, Stanford, Maryland, NC State, Oregon. And those are all games you won. And that’s all outside of conference play. Were you looking forward to the challenge or kind of dreading it? It has to be hard to get up every single night like that. How do you think that schedule is going to help you in March?
Cooke: Oh, man, I can’t lie. Those games that we did play top 25 teams in the country, I felt like it was back to back to back. It was definitely hard to do. But we came out on top of that. And like I said before, that just shows us what we’re capable of as a team. Playing against some of the top teams in the country and still coming out on top. It just prepared us. I think it’s best to play games like that rather than playing other teams that we know will be to challenge ourselves and show what we’re capable of.
SBN: And then of course there is a single blemish on your record this year. That’s Mizzou. It was a big upset because Mizzou is not considered a powerhouse team. But I’m just curious what it’s like to have that one loss. Like does that eat away at the team? Do you feel like, hey, maybe it’s a good thing so we don’t have the pressure of an undefeated season in March? What do you sort of think about that game now looking back?
Cooke: I won’t say it was a good thing for us but I’m happy we got that out early. I will say that and I think it humbled us in a way because like I said, we had just got done beating Stanford. We had a little bit of time off and then we went straight to playing Mizzou. We did not have the same chip on our shoulder that was definitely was a wake up call for us to know that we can’t take any team lightly no matter where they’re ranked, no matter who they are. We got to make sure we go into every game with the same mindset which is wanting to win no matter who steps in front of us. So I’ve definitely got that out of the way and hopefully this whole run we can go with no losses because at this point everything matters. So they gave us what we needed which was to put that chip back on our shoulder and prepare us to win.
SBN: There have been so many great players in women’s college basketball this year. Tell me why your teammate Aliyah Boston should be national player of the year.
Cooke: I think it’s plainly because the work she’s put in she dominates each and every time. She doesn’t take any of her opponents lightly. She’s that example everyone should want to be. She puts the work in each and every year, and grows. She does all things she should be doing to become the player that she is. I think it’s really just a beautiful thing to watch the way she’s grown over all these years. Every year she comes in with something new. She’s building something for herself each and every year, and it’s just a been a blessing to watch her and see all the success she’s had.
SBN: As a guard, what’s it like to play with a dominant big like that? It’s got to make your life so much easier.
Cooke: It makes it easy. When you miss shots, you know you got a dominant post player who will pick up any missed layups or missed shots. I’m pretty sure if I miss a shot I know Aliyah has the rebound. Something coach always tells us, ‘just get it on the rim, and we got great rebounders. They’ll get the rebound and put it back up.’ Not even just that though, she’s that teammate that you want. She’s just that leader that you want on every team. Just to keep the team together and keep you uplifted.
SBN: Can you tell us anything about Aliyah or coach that fans might not know?
Aliyah is super goofy off the court. I feel like she shows that off the court as well. It’s not the most exciting, but honestly they’re super humble. Even with all the accolades they’re getting, they’re still super, super humble. They come in and they don’t act bigger than anyone. They treat us all the same. Our coach being the SEC coach of the year and Aliyah being the player of the year in our conference, they’re still the same people. That’s what I love to see, people who don’t get big headed and think they’re better than others. AB is literally that teammate that keeps everybody equal and doesn’t think she’s better than anyone.
SBN: I’ve noticed your game is very physical. I found out you played football with the boys in fifth and sixth grade. How did that experience shape you as an athlete? There’s not a lot of young girls who get to do that.
Cooke: It was fun for me. It’s not common for a woman to play men’s sports, but that’s something I wanted to do. It’s something I think helped me out with my toughness and my IQ when I’m on the floor. It just shows that women can do the same thing men can do. Circling that back to H&R Block, they are putting their light on women. We haven’t been getting the same amount of opportunities that men have got. I think H&R Block is shining their light on us and giving us a fair shot to show we can do the same thing men do — and sometimes we might even be better at it. Football helped me in a lot of different ways. If I could I probably would have went longer with it. But basketball was what I really really wanted to do.
SBN: What’s it been like to play for coach Staley after spending three years with her?
Cooke: Coach is a star regardless of if we win a national championship or not. She’s that voice. When she walks in the room, you can tell she’s someone helps her culture and helps her community. And she wants what’s right, wants what’s fair. That’s who she is. She’s a star. She gives us the power and knowledge of what it’s like to be a woman playing high level sports. She’s definitely someone I look up to. And I hope I can become a leader like she is on the women’s side of sports.