Columbia, SC — The University of South Carolina dodged a major bullet tonight in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks defeated the Arizona State Sun Devils 71-68 in a close battle...too close for the No 1-seeds liking.
A’ja Wilson led her team with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but the unsung hero of the night was Kaela Davis who had 20 points and some vital plays during the final stretch of the game. Sophie Brunner had 20 points and nine rebounds for the Sun Devils, but it wasn’t enough.
“She [Davis] was the player in which put the ball in her hands because we wanted her to drive to the basket. Her free throw shooting was good, and she was aggressive,” said the Gamecocks’ head coach Dawn Staley. “We were calculating in the type of sets we wanted to run, forcing her to do so.”
South Carolina was highly successful in their first round game against UNC Asheville, where they had to figure out a way to make it work without top WNBA prospect Alaina Coates, who remains out due to an ankle injury. Dawn Staley’s solution to this featured a four-guard lineup, and the high-paced offense couldn’t be stopped.
The Gamecocks started the game doing exactly that, with four guards ready to run with it. Arizona State came out trying to match the tempo, and the high intensity resulted in a few turnovers and back and forth play on both ends. Two 3-pointers in a row from the Gamecocks sent the crowd to their feet and forced the Sun Devils to take a time out.
The Gamecocks wanted the ball in the hands of Allisha Gray, who had six consecutive points and led the team's fast-break offense. The Sun Devils held their own though and managed to stay within a few points, 19-15, at the close of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Brunner and the Sun Devil offense worked through the loud Gamecock crowd and had the opportunity to take the lead from the free-throw line. Wilson, however, turned it on, feeding off the rip-roaring crowd, and took the lead right back.
Arizona State proved to be South Carolina’s first real challenge of their style of game. Coach Staley and the Gamecocks would have to find an answer for Brunner, who had 14 points for Arizona State. South Carolina trailed 39-33 going into the half.
“In the second half we had to go to a zone, and that gave them pause. It disrupted them,” said coach Staley. “They did a great job controlling the tempo in the first half by allowing us to shift the ball east and west rather than north and south. We didn’t have the speed we needed to attack them, and we changed that in the second half.”
There was no way the No.1 seed was going to go down without a fight. One shot at a time, they started to chip away at the deficit and put a few more on the board. Davis rallied, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore had four steals for the Gamecocks. Doniyah Cliney stole the ball and took it uncontested to the rim at the end of the third quarter, and the crowd went ballistic.
Down by two going into the fourth 53-51, Davis stepped right onto the court and made it a tie game. The momentum began to shift in South Carolina's favor, and Wilson showed everyone that the Gamecocks were still in this thing.
Coach Charli Turner Thorne got a technical for the Sun Devils, allowing Davis to get two more from the free-throw line. Just like that, the Gamecocks took the lead right back.
“I called a timeout, but I probably deserved it,” said coach Thorne. “I just thought the consistency was off, if they’re going to call it that tight, then call it even in such a big game. Not to take any credit away from South Carolina.”
Reili Richardson answered for the Sun Devils, and Arizona State went on an 11-0 run to take the lead back. Wilson ended the scoring drought for the Gamecocks, following up on her own shot with relentless play in the paint.
The crowd was left on the edge of their seats, as South Carolina was up by three with two seconds remaining. Brunner went up for three, but it wasn’t to be… and the Gamecock crowd went up simultaneously as South Carolina snagged the win.
“The feeling was relief, elation, and thankful that we were on our home court. That’s what we play for,” said coach Staley.
South Carolina will move on to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament and continue their pursuit of a championship.