The top-seeded University of South Carolina will be able to bask in its basketball glory for at least one more day, as the Gamecocks stormed back from a nine-point halftime deficit in the Final Four on Friday to top second-seeded Stanford, 62-53, and advance to Sunday’s national night game.
The Gamecocks — whose men’s team faces Gonzaga in the men’s Final Four on Saturday — will face the winner of Friday’s second semifinal game between UConn and Mississippi State.
Here are three takeaways from South Carolina’s triumph in Dallas:
1. The game turned in the third quarter. Stanford went into halftime up 29-20, but the Cardinal’s offense disappeared in the third quarter. That, of course, can be attributed in part to South Carolina’s defense, and the Gamecocks’ offense did its part to take advantage of the Cardinal drought as well. They outscored Stanford 21-8 in that pivotal third frame and continued to control the game in the fourth quarter, finishing the Cardinal off late to advance.
“The biggest adjustment was speeding up the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We couldn’t play at that pace, shoot the ball the way we were shooting the ball. We had to figure out a way in which to create some easy buckets in transition. I thought we pressured the ball when we came out of halftime.
“During the middle of the third quarter when they got settled in with how we were playing, we went to a zone. I thought the zone bothered them a little bit, forced them to take some outside shots, and they missed. They missed a lot of shots in the third quarter that we capitalized on. That was all because of the pace of the game changed.”
2. A’Ja Wilson and Allisha Gray led the way. Wilson finished with 12 points and 19 rebounds, corralling every loose ball in her path. Gray finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, hitting five straight shots in the second half at one point and finishing the night 7 of 14 from the field. Tyasha Harris was the only other Gamecock player in double figures, with 10.
“I just kind of let the game come to me, whatever category it is on the stat sheet,” Wilson said. “I want to make an impact on my team any way I can. Tonight obviously was kind of rebounding.”
3. Stanford’s impressive run comes to an end. The Cardinal advanced to the Final Four by coming back from 17 down to beat top-seeded Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. They had trailed by seven or more points in five of their previous six games entering Friday’s semifinal. So Stanford was far from out of it once South Carolina took control in the second half. But the combination of cold shooting and a very limited Karlie Samuelson proved to be too much to overcome for the Cardinal.
“It was rough, frustrating,” Cardinal forward Erica McCall said. “But my teammates talked to each other the whole time. I’m really proud about how we kept communicating. I mean, kept shooting. Unfortunately they didn’t go in. We battled back in the fourth quarter. Alanna (Smith) hit big shots. I’m glad we battled, even though shots didn’t go in.”
Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer said the Cardinal got out of sync without Samuelson at full-strength.
“She scores for us. She defends. She takes charges,” Vanderveer said. “She couldn’t move. We tried. She wanted to play. We wanted her to play. One of the first possessions, Gray really took it right at her. Then we went with Bri. Psychologically and physically, it was a challenge.”
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