There were tears, as there should have been. There were angry words, as there should have been.
South Carolina didn’t so much lose to Syracuse 80-72 on Friday, ending its season at 33-2 in the Sweet 16, as it beat itself.
The stunning upset had the Gamecocks looking wide-eyed at the stat sheets. How could they ignore what got them here – the twin post dynamos of SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson and first-team All-SEC selection Alaina Coates – and hoist 32 3-pointers? How could they not match up with the Orange’s patient, often-plodding offense, utilizing high ball-screens to drive to the rim, and if not, sink a 3-pointer?
How could they, as talented a team as there is in the country, crumble so completely in the most crucial part of the season?
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Nobody had a good answer.
“They were the better team at the end of the day,” said Tina Roy. “It just didn’t work in our favor tonight.”
USC was knocked on its heels early when Tiffany Mitchell picked up two fouls in three minutes, each on charges. Point guard Khadijah Sessions was a non-factor, also in foul trouble all night and scoreless.
Yet, USC still had the game under control. Roy came out of nowhere to stroke five 3-pointers for 17 first-half points and the Gamecocks led by 10 at the half. It was ugly, sloppy, non-USC basketball but USC was still winning.
“I think any time you lose two seniors … it’s just syncing up and a flow in what you like to do,” coach Dawn Staley said. “When you have to change your substitution patterns because of fouls, it throws you off a little bit, and that’s what happened to us.”
They were ahead, though. All they had to do was calm down, get the ball in the paint and be more aggressive on defense and the rebounds.
Despite having the blueprint, they ignored it.
They kept firing 3s as the Orange (28-7) stayed in a zone. They could not rebound, yielding an unsightly 24 offensive boards. Syracuse’s press was supposed to give the Gamecocks problems, but they handled it well – it was the unforced turnovers, especially on offensive fouls, that did them in.
Roy didn’t score in the second half. USC was a horrid 1-of-16 from 3 in the final two quarters. Syracuse chipped away at the lead as the Gamecocks hurriedly began finding Coates and Wilson on every possession, and when Cornelia Fondren drove from the high post to finish with a foul, the Orange could see the upset.
The Gamecocks never answered. More lost rebounds, more non-defense and in general a frantic, desperate air from a team that oozed confidence all season gave Syracuse the edge. USC turned it over three times in the final 20 seconds while trying to come back; but the game was settled long before.
USC was outplayed by a team it was better than. But that same not-better team has a game on Sunday, while the Gamecocks are going home.
Roy, Mitchell, Sessions, Asia Dozier and Sarah Imovbioh ended their careers as players who didn’t lose often, but just enough. To be disappointed over a 33-2 season that saw the Gamecocks go 19-0 against SEC opponents was ludicrous.
But that’s what it felt like.
“We took the bait. If you look at our stats, our post players are 17-of-22 from the floor, 31 rebounds, 31 points,” Staley said. “Shooting it at that percentage, we should have been trying to get that ball in a lot more than what we did.”
Dozier stared blankly at the floor.
“I’m going to miss these girls,” she said. “To see it all come to an end in a way we weren’t expecting it to, a way we weren’t hoping it to, it’s just hard to take.”
When Fondren drove to score and finish a 3-point play with 1:56 to go, the Orange knew they had the Gamecocks in a hole. USC could never climb out of it.
Star of the game: Syracuse’s Brittney Sykes didn’t play in the Gamecocks’ two wins over the Orange last year. She showed USC what it had missed, scoring 17 points on consistent jumpers off high screens.
Play of the game: The Gamecocks were down three with 95 seconds to play when Brianna Butler stroked a 3. That was the death blow.
Stat of the game: USC was 8-of-32 from the 3-point line. Its previous high in 3-point attempts was 25.
FROM THE BASELINE
Stripes: Alaina Coates said the inside play was “borderline dirty,” but she couldn’t blame the refs. It was just something USC needed to get through because it would see those games in the future.
The Gamecocks saw the zone and didn’t try to challenge it. The two early fouls on Mitchell took away USC’s best driver, and she had to play less-aggressive, which is not something she does well. That’s what allowed Syracuse to dictate the game.
Stunner: As talented as the Gamecocks are, there were going to be games where talent wasn’t enough. They would have to rely on the veteran experience that got them here.
They needed that Friday. They didn’t get it. They seemed afraid, timid, punchless.
That wasn’t the same team that fought through a 19-0 SEC schedule.
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