The No. 1-seed South Carolina women’s basketball team was pushed right to the limit Sunday night.
Down by double digits, rallying to let a fourth-quarter lead slip from their hands, in most spots, this would be too much for even a team as good as these Gamecocks. And yet, they’re still going, still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
A’ja Wilson’s putback bucket with 48 seconds to go made the difference, and her free throws all but sealed the 71-68 victory against No. 8 seed Arizona State. USC (29-4) had rallied from down 11 early in the third quarter, gone up by 10 in the fourth before allowing an 11-0 run, and finally escaped the Sun Devils (20-13) with a ticket punched to the regional in Stockton, Calif., to meet Monday’s winner between Quinnipiac and Miami.
Despite the fact Wilson took all three shots on the two USC possessions after her team fell behind, she didn’t know the ball would come her way.
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“I was just kind of out there, honestly, just having a good feeling with our guards,” Wilson said. “The ball’s going to find who needed it at that time, and I just trust the system and trust the process.”
Before the game Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne argued her team had been underseeded, and the matchup felt more to her like a Sweet 16-type game.
The Gamecocks could only agree.
“They are a team that’s probably much more deserving than an 8, 9 seed,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “This team was a dangerous team because they got healthy, that’s No. 1. No. 2, they are a tournament-tested team.”
The Gamecocks struggled early finishing their shots, failing to convert steals and fastbreaks into points. Arizona State battled and played its physical style, keeping South Carolina off-balance (foul trouble also hammered both teams).
Then came the USC run, aided by a Doniyah Cliney steal and layup to close the third quarter and only leave the Gamecocks down two. With boisterous encouragement from the 8,276 at Colonial Life Arena, USC pressed ahead behind Kaela Davis (20 points) and Allisha Gray (11 points, 8 rebounds, who had to be carried off the floor after a late injury), aided by a technical on Thorne on a call she later said she earned.
Then ASU rallied, with Sabrina Haines’s 3 putting the hosts down 68-67 with 2:04 remaining. Then Wilson shot the ball three times in the next two possessions, ending with the game-winning putback.
“She’s their money player,” said Arizona State forward Sophie Brunner, who led her team with 20 points. “We knew they wanted to get it to her. We just couldn’t defend her, get the ball out of her hand.”
Thorne admitted it was reminiscent of the offensive rebound Wilson nabbed late in the teams’ meeting a season ago, which produced the go-ahead free throws in a two-point win. Wilson finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
It means the Gamecocks make a fourth consecutive Sweet 16. More than that, they have new life with a trip out west and another week. And salvaging that brings a lot of emotions.
“It’s relief, it’s elation,it is being battle-tested and winning another war,” Staley said. “And it is thankful, thankful that we got a chance to play at our place because I don’t think the results, and I say this a lot, I think the results would be different if we were at another gym.
“That’s what we play for.”