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South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley has been playing or coaching basketball her whole life. She has coached an NCAA national champion and played on three gold medal-winning USA Olympic teams. The point: She has seen a lot.

But, she said, she was surprised.

The subject: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, her 6-2 forward who was taken by the Lynx on Friday with the sixth overall pick in the WNBA draft. A long, lean, shot-blocking bundle of intensity who plays defense like it’s a mission and blocks shots as if the idea of someone challenging her is a personal affront. Among the nicknames she has acquired are “Mad Kiki” and “Access Denied.”

The question: How do you explain the jump Herbert Harrigan made as a senior?

“Because,” as Staley said this week, “the first three years of her college career there was a little bit of growth. Last year she took over.”

Perhaps Herbert Harrigan made the leap because she didn’t take off.

A tough decision

Go back to the end of that junior season. The Gamecocks had, by their standards, a difficult season: 23-10 overall, blown out in the Sweet 16 by Baylor. Not long after that game Herbert Harrigan told Staley she was going to enter the NCAA transfer portal.

Asked why in a conference call Tuesday, Herbert Harrigan hedged around the issue. Personal issues, she said.

“Some stuff needed to be clarified. We got on the phone with coach Staley and my mom. … South Carolina was the place I wanted to be. I just needed some things to be clarified.”

Perhaps Herbert Harrigan was afraid she might get lost amid a stellar incoming recruiting class at a time when she wanted to grab hold and lead the program, a pro career still in her dreams.

Staley said that role was already the plan. But:

“Sometimes I don’t think young people see the big picture,” Staley said. “They see their picture.”

It all got ironed out in that phone call. Herbert Harrigan returned and clicked with the kids. She was focused and driven.

“Her first three years she wasn’t paying attention to anything,” Staley said. “This year, this past season, she paid attention to everything. When she is locked in like that, she can do anything.”

Harnessing intensity

Herbert Harrigan’s intensity didn’t wane. It was just focused in a different way. She became more efficient on the offensive end. Always a good midrange shooter, she started showing three-point skills. Her passing vastly improved. If, perhaps, her edge had come from a sense of frustration early in her college career, as a senior it came from a sense of purpose.

South Carolina went from 23-10 to 32-1. That one loss was by 20 points to Indiana in late November at the Paradise Jam on the island of St. Thomas. It was a game, Staley recalled, that Herbert Harrigan backslid a bit, forcing some shots. But, two games later in the same tournament, Herbert Harrigan led the Gamecocks to a 74-59 victory over second-ranked Baylor.

Staley said that’s when she saw everything fall into place for her star. That was the first of 26 consecutive victories for South Carolina in a season that ended prematurely after the Gamecocks won the SEC tournament and Herbert Harrigan was named its MVP.

Herbert Harrigan coming to the Lynx, in retrospect, is no surprise. Coach/General Manager Cheryl Reeve and Staley are remarkably similar in style, friends who have coached together at USA Basketball. Herbert Harrigan played for Lynx center Sylvia Fowles’ AAU team in south Florida for years; she was lobbying her coach hard on the pick.

Fowles saw the intensity early on.

“She’s tough, raw and she has heart,” Fowles said. “That’s something we need in Minnesota. Something we’ve been lacking with Maya [Moore] out, [Lindsay] Whalen and [Rebekkah] Brunson retired. We have to build our intensity back up.”

The key: Herbert Harrigan continuing to focus her energy in the right direction and getting better at rebounding.

This could be the perfect situation, really. She knows Fowles. Reeve has put assistant Plenette Pierson — herself known for her edge as a player — in charge of mentoring Herbert Harrigan, whose senior season she watched closely.

Pierson’s biggest memory? Not scoring or defending. It was Herbert Harrigan getting into a scuffle with Mississippi State’s Jessika Carter after Gamecocks freshman Aliyah Boston had been shoved after a rebound.

“She has what I had going on,” Pierson said. “She rides for her team. But sometimes when you play with such passion your emotions can get in the way. It’s knowing how to use it to your advantage.”

But the bottom line is Reeve wanted a player with a bit of an attitude.

“I would much prefer to have edginess,” she said. “It shows an investment.”

So now Herbert Harrigan will have Fowles as a friend, Pierson as a mentor, Brunson as the best possible rebounding teacher.

“I really look forward to it,” she said. “To getting up there and getting to work. I’m ready for the challenge.”

Staley agreed.

“Having seen her grow and mature over the last year,” Staley said, “I know she’s going to be a better pro than college player.”