Kaela Davis’ first trip to the NCAA Tournament was a one-and-done, 20-point loss to LSU.
Her second trip was almost as disappointing. For a few frantic stretches Sunday night in Colonial Life Arena, South Carolina looked like it was headed for a second straight early exit from the tournament. The top-seeded Gamecocks trailed eighth-seeded Arizona State by as many as 11 in the second half and still were down by two, 53-51, when Davis came to the sideline to throw in the inbound pass that would start the fourth quarter.
The home crowd of 8,276 was beyond restless by this point, as unhappy with the officiating as both head coaches and more than a little nervous that its favorite team wasn’t going to match the Sun Devils’ fight, but Davis gave the fans a calm, we-got-this hand clap.
Then she made sure they did. Davis scored eight of her 20 points in the fourth quarter as South Carolina survived 71-68 to advance to the Sweet 16 in the Stockton Regional.
“You always want to be positive,” Davis said. “You never put yourself in position to feel down. I think we just kind of kept our heads down and really didn’t look at the score and fought back.”
Davis tied the game on that first possession of the fourth quarter, getting fouled while driving to the basket and hitting both free throws. She scored all eight of her fourth-quarter points in the first 4:09 of the period.
“We set her up,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We put the ball in her hands because we wanted her to drive to the basket. She was aggressive. I didn’t want her to settle for taking outside shots. I wanted her to be aggressive getting to the basket, so we were calculated in the sets we were trying to run forcing her to do so.”
Davis shot twice as many free throws as any other player on the floor in the fourth quarter, hitting 4-of-6 from the stripe.
“That was our game plan, just be aggressive and attack the paint as much as possible and try to get to the free throw line,” Davis said.
Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne pointed to Davis’ aggression as the difference in the fourth quarter.
“We let Davis get some layups down the stretch, that’s what happened,” Turner Thorne said.
Davis also stole the ball from Arizona State guard Reili Richardson with 18.5 seconds remaining and South Carolina nursing a one-point lead and was in the face of Sun Devil Sophie Brunner when Brunner’s final 3-point from the top of the key missed wide right.
Davis, a 6-foot-2 junior who is the daughter of 13-year NBA veteran Antonio Davis, came to South Carolina from Georgia Tech. There, she was set the ACC freshman scoring record and was named first-team All-ACC, but the Yellow Jackets never managed much team success, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament once and getting blasted 98-78 by LSU in that trip.
Allisha Gray, the Gamecocks other notable transfer, scored 11 points and had eight rebounds against Arizona State but had to be carried off the court with 2:19 remaining with what appeared to be a left leg injury.
“They’re kind of freshmen in our system but they’re not freshmen when it comes to experiencing a lot of game time,” Staley said.
That experienced paid off in the fourth quarter Sunday night.
Arizona St. (20-13)—Brunner 7-18 6-8 20, Dornstauder 2-5 3-5 7, Haines 3-4 3-3 12, Moos 1-3 0-0 2, Richardson 6-11 2-2 16, Ibis 2-6 1-2 5, Ruden 2-4 0-0 4, Hattis 0-0 0-0 0, Russell 0-4 0-0 0, Ryan 1-4 0-0 2, Totals 24-59 15-20 68.
South Carolina (29-4)—Wilson 7-14 7-7 21, Cuevas-Moore 1-8 4-4 7, Davis 6-13 6-8 20, Gray 4-10 3-3 11, Harris 1-1 0-2 3, Herbert Harrigan 1-1 3-4 5, Cliney 2-3 0-0 4, Totals 22-50 23-28 71.
3-Point Goals—Arizona St. 5-11 (Brunner 0-1, Haines 3-4, Moos 0-1, Richardson 2-4, Ruden 0-1), South Carolina 4-12 (Cuevas-Moore 1-4, Davis 2-7, Harris 1-1). Assists—Arizona St. 14 (Brunner 4), South Carolina 11 (Davis 4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Arizona St. 36 (Brunner 9), South Carolina 29 (Wilson 11). Total Fouls—Arizona St. 23, South Carolina 20. A—8,276.