South Carolina talked all week about how it had to avoid another slow start, to not dig itself a hole like it did its regular-season loss to North Carolina.
The top-seeded Gamecocks heard it, recognized it, pledged not to do it.
And then did it again.
USC’s magical season ended with a thud on Sunday, 65-58 to fourth-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16. USC (29-5) was physically beaten up and had its offense thrown off-kilter. After 29 wins and an SEC regular-season championship, the Gamecocks felt they had the talent and the drive to make it to the Final Four.
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Instead, they’ll head home two wins short.
“Disappointed that our season ends tonight, but truly proud of the team that we put on the floor,” said coach Dawn Staley, who ended her sixth season at USC with her third straight NCAA tournament appearance. “Just proud of the effort that we gave and proud of the season that we had. I think our players did probably what most people didn’t think was possible.”
USC lost five games this season, four of them with the same theme. The Gamecocks won so much this season because they finally had height – the presence of 6-foot-4 Alaina Coates was a load to handle. And when Coates kicked out, there was the pick-your-poison talents of Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell. When they lost, it was because the opponent had the same kind of height and was tougher in the paint.
The Gamecocks tried to get their inside game going, but the Heels’ post players were collapsing on Coates and Elem Ibiam. Layups would not fall, and passing lanes disappeared.
“They weren’t falling,” said Welch, who scored 10 but battled foul trouble throughout the game. “We had a lot of easy looks at the basket that we couldn’t convert. When you’re dealing with a team that likes to get up and down the court, you need to make all the easy ones you can get.”
USC hung in, but Mitchell and Welch couldn’t find room to operate. Hampered by fouls in the first half and UNC’s relentless defense in the second half, the Gamecocks’ top two scorers combined for 21 points.
Coates had a team-high 22 after being scoreless against UNC in December, but she received hardly any help. Point guard Khadijah Sessions, who vowed that she would be much better than the pressing, out-of-control player she was against the Tar Heels in December, had her first two shots blocked and was 0-of-8 from the field.
“They knew what we wanted to do, to get the ball inside,” Sessions said. “Tonight just wasn’t my game.”
USC shot 23-of-61. The whistles that had been so present against Cal State Northridge and Oregon State began accumulating in the second half, but not enough to turn the game around. The Gamecocks cut UNC’s lead to one with eight minutes to play, but Sessions’ driving layup was wiped off due to charging and Jessica Washington hit a 3-pointer to make it a four-point game.
The Gamecocks never got that close again.
North Carolina always had another shot or rebound to keep itself ahead. USC went to a fouling strategy with more than two minutes to go, but the 3-pointers that were crucial to making the plan work, like the numerous layups, would not fall.
“We just weren’t able to execute shots,” Coates mourned. “We know how to hit those shots, and we just weren’t making them today.”
The Gamecocks had a historic year. Blessed with height and talent throughout the roster, USC posted the second-most wins in program history. Staley said this team surprised her with how much it won.
But the Gamecocks were left feeling they gave one away on Sunday. Nothing – not the year that passed, or that they return all but one player, or that the No. 4 recruiting class is poised to join the program next season – was going to soothe that right away.
USC lost to a team it felt it was better than.
“I just hope our players feel really disappointed that our season ends today, and hopefully they’ll go back and work on their individual games, watch a lot of film, watch the rest of the tournament and get motivated to not being at home this time of the season,” Staley said. I’ll say this this probably won’t be the last time you’ll see a South Carolina women’s basketball team at this late stage of the NCAA tournament, so we’re going to look forward to our future.”
NORTH CAROLINA (27-9)
Mavunga 6-15 1-1 13, Coleman 3-4 2-4 9, Gray 2-6 0-0 5, DeShields 8-16 2-3 19, McDaniel 0-8 1-2 1, Butts 3-4 2-2 8, Rountree 0-0 5-6 5, Washington 2-3 0-0 5, Summers 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-58 13-18 65.
SOUTH CAROLINA (29-5)
Sessions 0-8 0-0 0, Welch 4-7 2-4 10, Mitchell 4-14 0-0 11, Dozier 3-7 1-1 7, Ibiam 1-5 1-1 3, Gaines 0-0 0-0 0, Davis 1-2 0-0 3, Roy 1-3 0-0 2, Coates 9-15 4-4 22. Totals 23-61 8-10 58.
Halftime_North Carolina 29-21. 3-Point Goals_North Carolina 4-14 (Coleman 1-2, Washington 1-2, DeShields 1-3, Gray 1-3, Mavunga 0-1, McDaniel 0-3), South Carolina 4-12 (Mitchell 3-4, Davis 1-2, Dozier 0-2, Roy 0-2, Sessions 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_North Carolina 35 (Mavunga 9), South Carolina 35 (Coates 11). Assists_North Carolina 11 (Washington 3), South Carolina 12 (Dozier 4). Total Fouls_North Carolina 15, South Carolina 19. Attendance: 6,700.