GREENVILLE, S.C. — You’re in it with South Carolina until suddenly and all at once, you’re not.
Maryland became the latest repeat casualty in the undefeated champion’s run to a second title that carried on with the 86-75 win in the Elite Eight of the women's NCAA tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. And though the Terrapins started strong, they couldn’t keep up with the continuous onslaught of Gamecocks.
Maryland became one of the few to take an early lead on South Carolina, 21-15, through one quarter. But the Terrapins sunk in the second, 23-9, amid foul trouble and waves of Gamecock subs who could start anywhere else. The one that often hurts the most is Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 forward who combos nicely with the 6-5 Aliyah Boston, the reigning National Player of the Year who is a finalist for this year’s awards.
It is, some might say, unfair. And it will be a problem for Iowa on Friday in the Final Four, as well as whichever team meets South Carolina if it advances to the national championship game.
“We tell her all the time, nobody else has this,” Boston told Yahoo Sports. “Nobody else has a Kamilla that can dominate on the court, so every time she steps on the floor, it’s all about dominate. Shoot the ball. Be aggressive. Because she can do that. It’s almost like a cheat code.”
Cardoso put in most of her minutes in the second half, which South Carolina led, 38-30, to start. In four minutes in the third, she added 4 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist. She was key in closing out the win in the fourth quarter of a 12-point game, playing nine minutes with 4 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist.
Boston moved around the court more this game, a change head coach Dawn Staley said was purposeful, and when she drove in, the defense followed. She had 22 points with 10 rebounds and 5 assists. On her few misses, it left Cardoso to clean up with ease, grabbing rebounds that were still 6 inches from the opponents’ finger tips.
“They’re like superheroes to me. I really look up to them and what they’re doing,” guard Zia Cooke told Yahoo Sports. “They definitely play hard together, and we always tell Kamilla, she’s that person that we need. Without her points, we wouldn’t be able to win games. So it’s good to have her.”
Cooke said she often tells Cardoso, a quiet soul who is always smiling and about her business, to be mean. But during the Elite Eight, she said she didn’t have to because she brought it herself.
It can be demoralizing for opponents’ fans to see the way the tall duo play off each other, towering over their competition. Early foul trouble, which included controversial calls and non-calls, didn’t help Maryland’s chances in contesting much of anything by the time the second half came around. Those offensive rebounds were also how the Terps racked up fouls so quickly. Two players fouled out, including Abby Meyers with a full seven minutes left in the game.
“I just think it’s hard and I’m just happy I’m on the same team as them,” Cooke said. “I don’t have to get my shot blocked or worry about them getting and-1s on me.”
Cardoso did not have a blocked shot in the Elite Eight, but when she does, they’re highlight-reel worthy every time. Against UCLA in the Sweet 16, she chased a Bruins guard and swatted it cleanly and with ease. No fast break is safe, a problem for Iowa to consider this week.
“I know you guys see her chasing down blocks,” Boston said. “She can start behind half court and she’s still getting there. Her effort is unbelievable.”
Staley didn’t turn to her bench as much as she had in the past, but she still played Cardoso nearly 17 minutes, reserve 6-3 point guard Raven Johnson for 25 and Bree Hall for 12. Laeticia Amihere, a 6-4 forward, played seven minutes. The entire roster played minutes again with the game out of hand late.
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said it was hard to continue the Terps' early success because of the Gamecocks’ physicality, size and “the waves that they can send at you from the bench.”
“When you’re bringing off 6-7 and 6-3 and another point guard to a backup point guard to another wing to the size that you have inside, and clearly you saw that when it impacted us with our foul trouble that we didn’t have that kind of depth,” Frese said. “It’s a big reason obviously why they’re undefeated and why they’re the defending national champions.”
The road to a second consecutive title continues in Dallas on Friday, where the next opponent is the offensive powerhouse of Iowa. National Player of the Year contender Caitlin Clark is the head of the offense, but she has received a leveling-up of scoring from the rest of the Hawkeyes.
They’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation and will have to combat South Carolina’s size. Iowa's big, Monika Czinano, is the Hawkeyes' tallest starter at 6-3. McKenna Warnock is 6-1, followed closely by Kate Martin and Clark at 6-foot. Gabbie Marshall is 5-9.
The Hawkeyes were able to advance even when Louisville took Czinano out of the game in the Elite Eight, but Iowa will still have to deal with more length on the perimeter in finding its shooters. South Carolina is good at reaching into passing lines.
Cooke and Staley both deferred on speaking to the upcoming matchup, saying they wanted to cherish winning another regional title. As teams arrive in Dallas, and the questions arise, one X factor will be Cardoso, her size and her improved ability to impact a game. Then again, it could be any other player on a roster so deep many can’t recall a team that could compare. Staley has the privilege of a personnel answer for almost anything.
“I think we have so many X factors,” Boston said. “We really do.”