The one goal has been accomplished. The one dream has come true. The Gamecocks are national champions.
South Carolina topped Mississippi State, 67-55, on Sunday night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas for its first national title in program history.
USC led 36-26 at the half and never trailed after the first quarter.
In October, the Gamecocks announced the theme for the season as “100” in terms of commitment to the team and realizing their goals. Each of the numbers had a specific meaning with 1 symbolizing one goal, one team, one dream, one family and one focus.
The victory over the Bulldogs was the third of the year for South Carolina. The Gamecocks finish their magical season at 33-4.
“It feels great. You want to visualize it. You’re so close. I was anxious waiting all day to get to this moment,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “It’s still unbelievable. I don’t know how to celebrate. I don’t know how to act. I don’t know what a national champion is supposed to look like. I know it feels incredible.”
South Carolina led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter and by eight entering the fourth but saw the margin shrink to four with 6:52 remaining. But as they did throughout the Final Four, A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray came up big when USC needed it most.
Wilson made a mid-range jumper and Gray followed with a layup to push Carolina’s lead back up to eight. The Bulldogs got no closer than six the rest of the way.
“I could have easily called a timeout, but our team has been through that. They’ve fought through adversity, and I just wanted to see what they were made of,” Staley said. “A’ja and Allisha came up with big baskets. They came up with big rebounds. They came up with a will of not wanting to lose.”
Wilson finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Gray had 18 points and was named to the Final Four All-Tournament Team.
Wilson and Gray combined to score 12 of South Carolina’s final 13 points with Wilson pouring in eight in the fourth quarter.
“I did not want to go home packing my bags crying of sadness. I wanted to go home with the trophy,” Wilson said. “I think that’s something that really helped me.”
Shortly after her final basket, Wilson and the rest of the starters were taken out of the game with the Gamecocks leading by 12 and only 46 seconds remaining.
The All-American walked off the floor with tears streaming down her face and sat on the bench and cried into a towel as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
When the buzzer sounded and the confetti began to fall, Wilson sat crouched in front of the bench, overcome with emotion, before her teammates came to help her to her feet and celebrate with her.
Wilson said she could not stop thinking about her late grandmother, Hattie Rakes, after she knew the Gamecocks had clinched the national title.
“I have her (name) tattooed on my wrist, and she really helped me. She was with me this game,” Wilson said. “She was my pride and joy. She still is my pride and joy, and she helped me through tough times. For her to be in heaven and have a front-row seat to this game, I hope she’s cheering for joy. It’s a great feeling to do this for her.”
South Carolina’s game plan was to dominate the paint and the Gamecocks certainly did, outscoring Mississippi State 42-20 down low.
In the first half, USC spread the Bulldogs out and took turns beating defenders off the dribble with Gray, Bianca Cuevas-Moore or Kaela Davis scoring in the paint or dumping it off to Wilson down low.
Carolina fell behind by six early in the first quarter before taking a 10-point lead into halftime.
“It was our game plan to attack the paint. We call it paint dominance,” Staley said. “We have to own the paint, whether we get that ball to our post players or drive it down somebody’s throat. We didn’t discriminate. We wanted to do it either way.”
South Carolina held first-team All-SEC performer Victoria Vivians to 12 points on 4 of 16 shooting, while Morgan William, who hit the game-winner against UConn, finished with two field goals and eight points.
William scored 41 against Baylor to reach the Final Four before hitting the game winner against the Huskies.
The Gamecocks will have a celebration on Monday at 4 p.m. in Colonial Life Arena.
MISSISSIPPI ST. (34-5)
Richardson 1-5 2-2 4, McCowan 2-6 3-4 7, Dillingham 5-10 0-0 11, Vivians 4-16 3-4 12, William 2-6 4-4 8, Chapel 1-2 2-2 4, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Campbell 0-0 0-0 0, Okorie 1-1 0-0 2, Allen 0-0 1-2 1, Holmes 3-5 0-0 6, Johnson 0-2 0-0 0, Schaefer 0-2 0-0 0, Totals 19-55 15-18 55.
SOUTH CAROLINA (33-4)
Wilson 9-15 5-6 23, Cuevas-Moore 2-6 1-2 5, Davis 4-12 2-2 10, Gray 7-15 4-5 18, Harris 2-4 2-3 6, Herbert Harrigan 0-1 1-2 1, Bradshaw 0-0 0-0 0, Cliney 1-2 2-2 4, Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Patrick 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 25-55 17-22 67.
3-point Goals: Mississippi St. 2-12 (Richardson 0-1, Dillingham 1-2, Vivians 1-5, William 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Schaefer 0-2), South Carolina 0-3 (Davis 0-2, Gray 0-1). Assists: Mississippi St. 8 (William 4), South Carolina 7 (Cuevas-Moore 2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Mississippi St. 27 (McCowan 10), South Carolina 40 (Wilson 10). Total Fouls: Mississippi St. 19, South Carolina 14. A: 19,229.