Bianca Cuevas will be heading far away from home when she goes to South Carolina for college next year, but Cuevas is going there in the hope of finding something familiar.
The Nazareth senior guard, considered one of the nation’s top players, excelled under the tough-love style of former coach and father figure Apache Paschall, who died suddenly nearly two years ago.
Cuevas saw similar qualities in South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, and that led her to pick the Gamecocks over Ole Miss last week.
“She was like, ‘This is going to be hard for you. I’m going to be on you because I only want the best for you,’ ” Cuevas said of Staley.
Nothing should be handed to her, Cuevas said. She expects to play, but not start right away for a program that was ranked No. 17 in the nation at the end of last season. Cuevas believes Staley and South Carolina will create the best environment for her to grow.
Staley is a one of the greatest players in the history of women’s basketball. The point guard won three Olympic gold medals, took Virginia to the NCAA title game, led the Charlotte Sting to the WNBA finals and is a member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
Cuevas, who scored 17 points at the Metro Classic All-Star game last Sunday, struck up a close bond with her.
“She’s going to teach me what I need to know,” she said. “She is going to be honest with me. She’s not going to sit there and lie in your face. She’s going to take care of me.”
That sort of forward thinking is a sign of how much Cuevas has grown as a person off the court since she was a phenom seventh grader playing against high school seniors with her Exodus travel ball team. Nazareth coach Ron Kelley said the 5-foot-6 Cuevas is a different person thanks to her tumultuous junior season. She was suspended for the remainder of the year last February for two incidences of fighting.
“The trouble that she got in last year in a little bit of a way was a blessing in disguise,” Kelley said. “The kid has her head on her shoulders the right way right now. She’s focused.”
The publicly shy Cuevas has become more affable and upbeat, according to Kelley. She admitted to letting her emotions get the best of her last season. Cuevas felt she allowed opponents to get under her skin too easily last year, and that’s not going to be the case any more.
“She is being more of the outgoing, nice young lady that we knew internally, but everybody else didn’t know,” Kelley said. “She is showing that to everybody now.”
Cuevas knows she let her teammates down, and said it was hard to watch them struggle without her. Nazareth went from the Catholic Class AA state champ to its ‘A’ representative. But she believes that adversity has only made them stronger.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from the last two years,” Cuevas said. “Matured.”
In South Carolina, she sees a place where her growth can continue with the kind accountability she needs to continue succeeding. Staley and her staff are demanding, both on and off the court. Earning everything that comes to her sits just fine with Cuevas.
“I think I had a better future over there,” Cuevas said. “I think I am going to have to work harder.”