The game clock couldn’t wind down fast enough for South Carolina coach Dawn Staley on Monday.
Her Gamecocks led Purdue by double digits, and she was minutes away from her first NCAA Sweet 16 in 12 years of coaching. She looked over at assistant coach Nikki McCray, her Olympic teammate, as part of a routine — a silent request for the seconds to melt away.
In an arena with temperatures that fit their name, the Boilermakers pestered the Gamecocks until the final seconds, having had enough of a 40-minute, fast-paced physical game.
USC won 72-61 on Purdue’s homecourt to reach the round of 16 for the first time in a decade and the third time in program history. The Gamecocks (25-9), the No. 5 seed in the Fresno Region, will play top-seed Stanford (33-1) on Saturday in Fresno, Calif.
“Growing up, you always see the Tennessees, the Stanfords, the UConns playing at this level, and just to see what we did was just incredible,” said senior guard Markeshia Grant, who scored a game-high 21 points. “And then this is the first time coach Staley has ever been to a Sweet 16, so it’s even more special.”
Staley failed to get past the second round in six NCAA trips at Temple. She said she always was one or two players away from the breakthrough at the Atlantic 10 school.
“This was a game in which, in my coaching career, I could never get over the hump,” she said. “I think that coming to this University of South Carolina, being in a position to play against some of the best talent, the best coaches, I think it prepares you a lot better when you play in a bigger conference and you’re able to recruit a different type of player.”
South Carolina overcame the stifling heat from a Midwest warm spell and the hostile home crowd inside Mackey Arena to top Purdue (25-9), the fourth seed and the Big Ten tournament champion. Purdue had lost once in 14 previous NCAA opening-round games in West Lafayette.
USC’s guards exploited Purdue’s man-to-man defense to drive for easy baskets. In addition to Grant, guard Ieasia Walker added 17 points.
“I was kind of like being in a candy shop,” said La’Keisha Sutton, who scored 10 first-half points, many off dribble-drives. “When I saw it, I was like, ‘I can get in there.’”
The smaller but more speedy USC squad dominated scoring in the paint by a 32-22 margin. But Purdue coach Sharon Versyp thought South Carolina got a little advantage from the referees in the post.
“When we got close, they kept running the play where they pinned the player, and we always got called on a foul, and we did it all year and they did it about seven times and they only called it one time,” Versyp said. “They were able to score a layup, driving pinning our post, just moving them totally across the lane.”
The game got physical in the second half with USC guard La’Keisha Sutton and Purdue guard Chantel Poston both getting technicals after a shouting match. Poston was called for a flagrant foul soon after when she shoved Ebony Wilson while wrestling for the ball.
“They threw hits at us, we threw hits at them,” USC freshman forward Aleighsa Welch said.
USC opened a 14-point lead after Wilson made one of two free throws and Ieasia Walker hit a 3-pointer. Purdue got within seven with 10 minutes remaining, but South Carolina kept the Boilermakers’ shooters at bay and extended the lead to as many as 16 points with transition baskets and strong inside play.
“We didn’t panic,” forward Ashley Bruner said. “We just stuck close to their shooters, because we know if they got one 3, they would get another 3.”
Purdue’s top scorers, Brittany Rayburn and Courtney Moses — who combined for 41 points in the Boilermakers’ opening-round win — totaled 20 points on Monday.
“I think it was just ourselves, shooting ourselves in the foot,” Rayburn said.
The Gamecocks shot 49 percent against Purdue after hitting 53 percent in the NCAA opener against Eastern Michigan.
The Gamecocks also took advantage of the Boilermakers’ poor ball control, scoring 20 points off 20 turnovers. USC committed 12 turnovers against a Purdue team that forces 19 per game.
“I told them I thought they were special,” Staley said. “They executed the game plan incredibly. I’ve said that a lot this year, but to do it on this stage, a stage which they’ve never been, was incredible.”
Purdue has a deeper history in the tournament — making 22nd appearances in the past 24 seasons, including a national title in 1999. Nine current Boilermakers had NCAA tournament experience.
The Gamecocks have none — but they’re going to California.
“It’s just everything I saw throughout the recruiting process coming true,” Welch said. “I knew that we could be a great team, and we’re proving it practice by practice, game by game. We’ve done a lot of successful things this year, but the run is not over.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (25-9)
Stephens 1-2 0-0 2, Newton 0-1 0-0 0, Walker 6-12 3-4 17, Grant 8-13 2-2 21, Sutton 5-10 0-1 10, Wilson 1-2 3-4 5, White 0-0 0-0 0, Bruner 4-9 2-6 10, Roy 1-4 0-0 3, Welch 2-4 0-3 4, Ibiam 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-57 10-20 72.
Ostarello 2-9 0-0 4, Jones 2-3 0-0 4, Rayburn 5-6 3-5 13, Moses 2-8 3-4 7, Houser 3-11 6-6 15, Howard 1-5 0-0 2, Thornton 0-0 0-0 0, Williams 1-1 0-0 2, Clemons 1-1 0-0 2, Guyton 1-8 0-0 2, Poston 3-3 1-2 7, Woods 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 22-56 13-17 61.
Halftime: South Carolina 33-26. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 6-16 (Grant 3-7, Walker 2-3, Roy 1-4, Newton 0-1, Sutton 0-1), Purdue 4-10 (Houser 3-6, Woods 1-1, Howard 0-1, Moses 0-2). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: South Carolina 30 (Welch 8), Purdue 40 (Ostarello 13). Assists: South Carolina 11 (Walker 4), Purdue 16 (Rayburn 4). Total Fouls: South Carolina 15, Purdue 21. Attendance: 2,646.