Bianca Cuevas-Moore is accustomed to her coaches becoming family.
It’s why The Bronx native chose South Carolina as a McDonald’s All-American out of Nazareth High School in Brooklyn and why she is thriving there.
In Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley, a Hall of Fame women’s basketball player in her own day, she saw a familiar no-nonsense, but caring, approach.
It reminded Cuevas-Moore, a hoops prodigy at 11 years old, of playing for Apache Paschall with his Exodus travelball team and later at Nazareth. He was a father figure to her, filling a void in her life.
A starting junior guard for the Gamecocks, Cuevas-Moore, lost her mother when she was 2 years old, her grandfather when she was 11, and her biological father was never a part of her life. Then Paschall died in January 2012 of cardiac arrest at the age of 38. Her remaining family, along with Nazareth coaches Ron Kelley and Lauren Best, helped Cuevas-Moore get through it.
She rarely opens up about her past, however, preferring to look forward. That chapter is with Staley, chasing a national title.
While Cuevas-Moore said nothing could compare to her relationship with Paschall, she has found a new family member in her college coach.
“She acts like she is my aunt,” the 5-foot-6 Cuevas-Moore said in a phone interview before South Carolina’s NCAA women’s championship game on Sunday in Dallas against Mississippi State, which is coming off a massive 66-64 overtime upset of UConn. “She gets on me one day and then the next time she’s like loving.”
Cuevas-Moore described Staley and Paschall as both “crazy” in a good of way. They pushed to get the best from her.
“Even though they are mad at the moment, they want you to be better,” she said. “[You] just know that they weren’t going to tolerate certain things.”
That tough love allowed Cuevas-Moore to excel at South Carolina in a different role. She averaged just six points in 16 minutes per game off the bench over her first two seasons and averaged seven points per game in the NCAA Tournament to helping the team reach the Final Four as a freshman.
She could have chased personal success elsewhere, but instead stuck it out and embraced whatever role she was given. Winning was more important to her.
“I’ve matured a lot,” she said. “I understand things better now. … On and off the court I see the bigger picture in things now.”
Cuevas-Moore was in and out of the starting lineup until an injury to forward Alaina Coates put her back in the first five for the postseason. Cuevas-Moore is averaging 8.4 points per game and leads the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks (31-4) in steals with 57. She scored 18 points in South Carolina’s tournament opener and her defense has been important to the team’s success.
“I think she’s at a good place where she’s understanding how to play fast to slow to fast, and understanding the pace she needs to play,” Staley told The Post and Courier before the season. “Once she gets that under control, she’s going to be really a hard guard to stop.”
Cuevas-Moore is poised to win a national title and attain a college degree in criminal justice, a position those at home always hoped she would be in. But they didn’t know for sure she would get there with all the adversity she went through.
“This could have went totally the opposite direction,” Kelley said. “Bianca could have been another New York City statistic.
“It’s really, really hard to have lived the life that Bianca has lived and to achieve the things that she has achieved so far.”