March Madness: Undefeated South Carolina returns to Elite Eight with defensive win over UCLA

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) laughs with Brea Beal (12), Bree Hall, right, and Kierra Fletcher, left, during the second half of the team's first-round college basketball game against Norfolk State in the women's NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford) HOLD for Mike Stewart

The No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks are headed back to the Elite Eight after putting on a defensive clinic in a 59-43 win over No. 4 seed UCLA at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday.

Headed into the matchup, it seemed that if any team had a chance at stopping the South Carolina, it would be the Bruins. The team even led at halftime before falling 73-64 in November.

Saturday, the Gamecocks relied on the previous meeting to ensure a victory in the Sweet 16 battle. Pregame, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told ESPN she had learned that UCLA was "patient offensively." That considered, her plan was to rebound and "speed them up and make them play faster than they wanna play."

Her veteran-heavy team did exactly that. Struggling to keep up with the Gamecocks' early pace, UCLA sophomore Emily Bessoir already had two fouls before the first quarter’s halfway mark. With around 3 minutes to play in the quarter, UCLA had three turnovers to South Carolina’s zero.

While South Carolina was grabbing plenty of offensive rebounds, the shots weren't falling early. The Gamecocks came away from the quarter up 14-8, less of a lead than they probably would have liked.

Sophomore Bree Hall kept pushing the pace in the final seconds of the first period, making a fast-break layup from her own defensive board look like a walk in the park. She ended the game with 10 points, three rebounds and a steal.

The second quarter offered more of the same. SC's impressive defense held the Bruins to just 15 points in the first half. Star UCLA freshman Kiki Rice got on the board with a jumper late in the second quarter but she finished the game with three points.

The Gamecocks led UCLA 25-15 at halftime, with the Bruins still without an offensive rebound to that point — a testament to the stern defense South Carolina showcased. Bessoir's three fouls and three points were the high for UCLA going into the half.

South Carolina's "freshies" — Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, Olivia Thompson and Brea Beal — have lost a mere eight games in their four-year Gamecock careers. The group of seniors shined in the victory to help South Carolina lead by 20 by the end of the third.

Up 50-30, the freshies were featured in an offensive uptick for the Gamecocks, putting up 25 points in the quarter. Beal's 10 points along with eight points and 14 rebounds from Boston made all the difference.

The third quarter was also highlighted by 10 points from Kamilla Cardoso and an impressive chase-down block with four minutes to play.

The final period was a continued defensive effort with the first score not coming until the 7:23 mark — two made free throws from UCLA freshman Londynn Jones. The Bruins were led by a team-high 14 points from senior Charisma Osborne.