Sunday’s game is a looping moment for the Ohio Gamecocks

On November 25, 2018, Zia Cooke’s high school team lost their season opener. Toledo Rogers High School lost 48-37 to Mason High School. It was the last time Cooke’s team lost to an in-state opponent that year, earning 22 straight wins over Ohio opponents on the way to a state championship.

But that day was a first step in a journey that will return on Sunday afternoon when Cooke and the Gamecocks face No. 8 seed South Florida in the NCAA second round. On the other side of that starting game for Mason was Sammie Puisis, the 6-foot-1 guard who originally signed up at Florida State before transferring to South Florida.

“I remember that,” laughed Puisis in the locker room after South Florida practice. “I remember me and Zia just babysitting each other, and it was just back and forth, back and forth. But it was fun.”

Cooke and Puisis were two of eight finalists for Ohio’s 2019 Ms. Basketball Award, given to the state’s top high school basketball player. Other finalists included future WNBA first-round pick Kierstan Bell, Tennessee superstar Jordan Horston and Ohio State’s Jacy Sheldon.

Cooke and Puisis were also McDonald’s All-Americans in 2019, playing in the annual showcase in Atlanta that spring. Puisis scored 14 points in his team’s overtime win over Marquette in the first round and has averaged 15.8 points per game for the Bulls this season. And if anyone on the Gamecocks knows how dangerous Puisis can be in a big game setting, it’s Cooke.

“Sammie was really cool,” Cooke said. “She’s a very, very good shooter. She’s got a lot of length going for her; she’ll definitely rebound too. But we’re definitely going to have to challenge all of her shots, because she’s a lethal 3-point shooter.

Ohio’s connections on the court Sunday extend even further with South Carolina guard Bree Hall. Although she was two years younger than Puisis and Cooke, Hall played in matches with both of them. The trio played together on the same AAU team, a bond they shared throughout their divergent college careers.

Hall and Cooke of course won a national championship together last season at Columbia, and the former still keeps in touch with Puisis. Prior to these AAU tournaments, the entire team would meet in what Hall called the team’s “fun house”. Specifically, this meant that the Puisis family would welcome their teammates before the AAU tournaments in Cincinnati or Columbus.

“His house was really, really big,” Hall recalled. “I’m talking about a waterslide in the back and a very nice swimming pool. And then she had an extra part that had arcade games and stuff like that. It was very cool.”

Sunday afternoon, the circle will be complete for the trio. Cooke and Puisis, both starting goalkeepers, will almost surely have a direct one-on-one with each other in the thick of the action. She will have the chance to beat one of the only players who had her in her high school career. Hall will have the opportunity to relive some of those memories of hanging out with Puisis and the team, his “favorite part” of AAU basketball. There will be a sense of familiarity, the kind of closeness you would never expect from two different conference programs that have never faced each other before.

And most importantly, in another very emotional NCAA Tournament game as the Gamecocks continue their bid for a repeat, there will be a small slice of family involved on both sides.

“It’s a little weird,” Puisis said. “But it’s fun. I’m excited.”

The whistleblower between the Gamecocks and the Bulls is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET on ABC.


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