Stockton, CA -- You couldn’t blame the South Carolina Gamecocks if they had decided to pack it in.
They were the SEC champions and a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, yet had to travel 2,637 miles to Stockton, CA. Then came the loss of All-SEC center Alaina Coates.
But when you have Dawn Staley as a head coach, the word quit doesn’t exist in your vocabulary. And to South Carolina’s credit, they didn’t quit. As an end result, they are going to the Final Four after beating the Florida State Seminoles 71-64 on Monday night.
Junior A’ja Wilson, who scored 16 points but sat most of the game in foul trouble, had nothing but praise for her teammates after the hard-fought win.
“That speaks volumes about this group of girls,” Wilson said. “We’re a very special team. We each bring a lot to the table. Just to have someone like me sit out and the offense doesn’t dip just goes to show how great of a team we are.”
This isn’t to say that the win came easy.
Florida State, the number three seed in the Stockton region, had to overcome adversity just to get to the regional championship, and they made sure South Carolina felt pressure.
Despite starting the game in a 5-0 hole, the Seminoles, led by senior guard Leticia Romero and junior forward Chatrice White, muscled their way back into the game, even tying it for a small time before ending the first quarter down 24-17.
Unfortunately, in the second quarter, Florida State went ice cold on both offense and defense. With the Seminoles going 5-of-14 from the field, the Gamecocks took advantage, shooting 54 percent from the field and going a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line in the first half. Going into halftime, the Gamecocks held a 40-29 lead.
Florida State head coach Sue Semreu was not impressed with how her team performed offensively in the first half.
“We just didn’t hit shots,” Semreu said. “That was the big bottom line. And why didn’t we hit shots? I thought we rushed.”
Florida State managed to find their footing somewhat in the third quarter, outscoring South Carolina 16-15. But the Gamecocks managed to keep their heads above water, and went into the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley gave a lot of credit to the Seminoles and their never say die attitude.
“They are a team that they never find themselves out of the game because they play so fast, they take quick shots,” Staley said. “They get the ball up-and-down and they turn you over as well.”
And take quick shots Florida State did. At one point in the fourth quarter, Florida State found themselves down by 3, and had a chance to take the game into their own hands.
Florida State junior guard Imani Wright felt the change in the team’s confidence as the momentum came their way.
“The adrenaline gets pumping when you know you have to do something or you are going to lose, so I think that was something all of us felt,” Wright said. “We felt like we needed to get it done right there and then.”
With two minutes left on the clock, Florida State looked like they just might pull off the comeback. But South Carolina’s Tyasha Harris was not about to let the Gamecocks lose. After making a key three-pointer, Harris also got the game-winning steal that sealed the deal for South Carolina.
“We kind of just stuck with the gameplan,” Harris said. “We just focused on defense and trying to stop our man. And the last steal, I just saw it coming and grabbed it, and, I don’t know, that’s what happened.”
South Carolina will now be advancing to their second Final Four in three years, and also are making school history in the process. The men’s team also made the Final Four, making it the first time in school history that both teams have made it to the Final Four.
For junior guard Allisha Gray, this couldn’t be any bigger of a moment.
“It’s a great feeling, especially on the men’s side,” Gray said. “It’s their first time in history and they are doing big things as a 7-seed. Then for us to come in and maintain our seed, I’m just proud of them and us.”
Wilson is soaking in the thrill of being in her second Final Four, with this one being sweeter than the first.
“This feels amazing,” Wilson said. “The first time was great and you can never knock it, but this time is special to just be able to be around these girls and get this win with this group. It’s amazing.”