Dallas, TX — All roads led to Dallas and started with South Carolina and Stanford in the first Final Four match-up.
It’s the “Code Red” mentality that the Cardinal credit in getting them here. The Stanford players’ tradition in the NCAA Tournament is a rallying cry that promotes the idea of doing whatever to win. The Cardinal did just that in their 16-point comeback against Notre Dame to find themselves here in Dallas.
For South Carolina, it’s a different story. They were always a favorite to make it to Dallas until they recently ran into a little adversity. Alaina Coates, one of their best players, got injured in the SEC Championship. However, instead of allowing it to become an excuse, the Gamecocks became stronger through it.
In yesterday’s pre-game press conference, South Carolina Head Coach Tara VanDerveer said, “They actually have gotten closer because of it. A lot of what we're doing is because of the closeness of this team, because of Alaina's injury.”
But can their team chemistry continue through their biggest game this year in what could give them a shot at a national title? The time has come to find out.
A'ja Wilson won the tipoff to give South Carolina the ball to start, though they couldn’t convert on their first possession. It was Stanford who scored first with a basket by Erica McCall. South Carolina’s Tyasha Harris responded with a three-pointer and the Gamecocks took off to get an early 7-2 lead.
However, the Cardinal did not stay behind for long. With just under three minutes, Alanna Smith made a layup to take the 10-9 lead. Moments later, South Carolina’s Allisha Gray hit a three-pointer to regain the lead. She air balled another to run out the shock clock with 1.4 seconds left in the period. Stanford took and nearly made a full-court shot as time expired.
The Gamecocks started the second period up 14-12.
Stanford then went on a 9-0 run. It started with a mid-range jumper by McCall who tied it up. Another highlight was when Marta Sniezek was fouled on a layup, which she made, as well as the free throw that followed.
The Cardinal’s momentum was finally halted when South Carolina’s Doniyah Cliney made a free throw, making it 21-15.
At 4:38, Karlie Samuelson went down with what looked like a painful twisted ankle. She was literally carried off the court by teammates. She did not return the rest of the half.
From there, it was a lot of back and forth. Brittany McPhee made an acrobatic jumper with just under two minutes remaining in the half. However, the basket didn’t count as she was called for traveling.
South Carolina found themselves with the ball for what looked to be the final possession of the half. Cliney was fouled on a layup attempt. She went one and one on the free throws. Stanford then got one last shot attempt off, but it was not good.
The Cardinal lead 29-20 at the half.
Once again, the Gamecocks came out quick to start. They scored four points right away while it took over two minutes for Stanford to score their first points of the half.
South Carolina continued to slowly, but steadily chip away at Stanford’s lead. With 5:27 left in the third, they pulled within three.
McCall was not planning to let them come back on her watch, though. She swatted away a shot by Harris to keep the score at 33-30.
But the Gamecocks had their own plans. It became a one-point game after a layup by Gray. Then Bianca Cuevas-Moore hit a three-pointer to take the lead. South Carolina didn’t stop there, though. Cliney and Cuevas-Moore again extended their lead to 39-33 with 1:42 left in the third.
Wilson took herself out of the game after an apparent eye injury. She had been taking a beating all night long.
Missed shots became the story for Stanford. They found themselves in a scoring drought for over five minutes of play.
South Carolina outscored the Cardinals 21-8 in the third to make it 41-37 heading into the last period.
The scoring slowed at the beginning of the fourth. But after a jumper by Gray, the Gamecocks took their largest lead of the game thus far at 47-40. The Cardinal were not having that and responded with a three-pointer by Briana Roberson to close the gap.
South Carolina regained momentum from there. Gray executed a three-point play after she was fouled on a shot, giving her team a 53-47 lead.
Stanford made it a one-possession game though after a three-pointer by Smith with just over two minutes remaining. Time was starting to become a factor.
As the “one-minute” mark was being announced, Harris hit a jumper. Then the Gamecocks get a defensive rebound and Cuevas-Moore made an easy layup after a full-court pass by Gray. South Carolina was all of a sudden up 58-50 with 42 seconds left.
Smith brought the Cardinal within five after knocking down a three-pointer. However, free throws sealed the deal for South Carolina. Harris made two, followed by another two from Wilson.
With a final score of 62-53, the Gamecocks will play in the National Championship. They take on the winner of the second Final Four game between UConn and Mississippi State.
Head Coach Dawn Staley made no hesitation about who deserves the credit.
“First of all, I just want to say to God be the glory that we're in this position, to play for a national championship. Something that is so very hard to do.”
Wilson said, “I can't even put into words the feeling that I have right now. This is a very special team. I feel like we've earned this spot that we're in now. We know that we're not done. But just the feeling of just making history at your school is just something really special.”
When asked about beating her former coach, Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer, from the 1996 Olympics, Coach Staley smiled as she said, “She's been one of my biggest supporters since I've been in coaching. She's what's right for women's basketball.
“I can't thank her enough. But then you start thinking about, you know, they throw up statistics on the television screen, 0-5 coaching against her. You think at some point the law of averages should play out at some point.”
Coach Vanderveer was rightfully saddened by the loss, but she had nothing but high praise for her team.
She said, “I'm so proud of our team, how hard we fought. They battled in there. We will hold our heads up high leaving Dallas.”