Gamecocks punch Final Four ticket, move to 36-0

ALBANY, N.Y. — South Carolina freshman guard Tessa Johnson said she is afraid of heights, yet somehow still loves roller coasters.

“I definitely scream,” Johnson said.

On Sunday, though, she was able to go up the ladder to cut down the net after the Gamecocks advanced to their fourth consecutive women’s Final Four by beating Oregon State 70-58 in the Albany 1 Regional final. Johnson joked that she would have preferred just staying on the court while someone snipped a piece of twine for her, but she still made the climb.

For the second consecutive season, the Gamecocks go into the last weekend of the basketball season undefeated. Even after losing five starters and key reserve, the No. 1 overall seed Gamecocks are 36-0 heading into the national semifinals Friday in Cleveland.

South Carolina’s depth has been one of its assets, and that helped Sunday: Coming off the bench, Johnson had a team-high 15 points, while sophomore Ashlyn Watkins had eight points and a team-best 14 rebounds.

As the closing seconds ticked away at MVP Arena, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and her staff had a group hug on the sideline as the Gamecocks celebrated what has become a tradition for them.

“The odds said that we shouldn’t make it back to the Final Four,” Staley said of replacing so many key players from a year ago, including WNBA No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston. “Just proud of our team and for them believing in themselves. They created a certain level of chemistry and culture, and they stuck with it, and then they allowed us to coach them. They trusted us to coach them, even when it didn’t feel good to them personally at different times of the season.”

The Gamecocks, who previously won the NCAA title in 2017 and 2022, were big favorites to win it all last season, too, but were upset in the national semifinals by Iowa. On Sunday, the halftime score was a little too close for comfort, with South Carolina leading just 37-33 after struggling from behind the 3-point line (2-12 in the first half).

Things didn’t get much better from behind the arc in the second half for South Carolina, which finished the game 4-of-20 from long range. But the Gamecocks found other ways to score.

Their 6-foot-7 starting center Kamilla Cardoso — who was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player — helped give South Carolina a 58-46 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

And when Oregon State got to within 62-58 with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left, it was Johnson’s 3-point play at 3:29 that gave the Gamecocks breathing room. Johnson made four more free throws in the final minute.

Johnson said she has had her ups and downs like most freshmen.

“That’s going to happen in life — you fail, and you learn from it and you keep going up,” Johnson said. “You’re always growing.’

South Carolina outrebounded Oregon State 51-37. Cardoso finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, while starting guard Bree Hall had 10 points.

For Oregon State (27-8), it was a strong NCAA tournament showing. The Beavers were picked 10th in the preseason poll in the last year for the Pac-12, yet finished fourth and then upset No. 2 seed Notre Dame on Friday to make the Elite Eight. Forward Raegan Beers led Oregon State with 16 points.

In South Carolina’s 79-75 Sweet 16 victory over Indiana on Friday, the Gamecocks led by as much as 22 points but had to battle off the Hoosiers to the buzzer. Sunday’s Elite Eight game was more even throughout, but in both cases, the Gamecocks had to execute late to win. The fact that they did that should give them confidence heading into the national semifinals.

It is the sixth Final Four for the Gamecocks and Staley, who took over the South Carolina program in 2008-09 and has built it into a dynasty that has dominated the SEC the past decade. As a player, Staley led Virginia to three consecutive Final Fours (1990-92) but didn’t win the championship with the Cavaliers.

She had a successful post-collegiate playing career, which included eight seasons in the WNBA and three Olympic gold medals. She also coached Team USA to Olympic gold in 2021. Her program-building at South Carolina has changed the landscape of women’s college basketball. After the close call against Indiana, Staley was asked about getting her team ready for Oregon State.

“It’s about just being able to play to the habits that you’ve created all season long,” Staley said. “And when they go haywire, you’re just trying to, in real time, make adjustments. That’s what it’s about at this stage of the game.

“So not a whole lot of screaming and yelling. Just kind of showing them what we need to do. I think they know. I think this moment will allow them to just rely on those habits.”

Now, Staley and the Gamecocks hope to repeat their 2022 Final Four success and put last year’s national semifinal heartbreak to rest. Staley said she has enjoyed this team’s personality and is happy to have another week with them as they go for a championship.

“I give into allowing them to be their silly selves,” she said. “Like they’re really silly. They talk a lot about nothing. But some of that talk is holding each other accountable. They talk to each other in … ways that we’ve got to close the door and just kind of give them their space. But they enjoy each other. That’s who they are.”

This post was originally published on ESPN

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