South Carolina won the kind of women’s basketball game Sunday afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium that championship-caliber teams win.
The Gamecocks overcame their dreadful shooting in the first half. They were outrebounded. They turned the ball over 18 times. Despite all that, they showed a resiliency that is characteristic of a team determined to win against all odds.
“I just credit everybody for not hanging their heads when times got hard and just pushing through, fighting through,” said A’Ja Wilson, whose follow shot with 1.8 seconds remaining sealed the 51-50 victory for the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks over ninth-ranked Duke.
“That last minute, there were plenty of times people could have just (hung) their heads and said, ‘We came out here, we fought hard, but it’s over.’ “ Wilson said. “Nobody did that. We never had one time where we didn’t believe we were going to win this game.”
It looked bleak for USC in the final 30 seconds when Duke held a 50-46 advantage. That is when a trio of Gamecocks – two of the team’s stars and another a seldom-used reserve – made game-winning plays.
First it was Tiffany Mitchell’s turn. A 50-percent shooter from 3-point range entering the game, Mitchell was suffering through a miserable afternoon of misfires. The junior guard had connected on one of eight shots from the floor and missed all three of her 3-point attempts.
Still, Dawn Staley wanted the ball in Mitchell’s hands with the outcome in the balance. Mitchell fired from the top of the key, and when the ball swished through the nets USC was within one point with 19 seconds remaining.
Then, Staley – who seconds earlier had botched a substitution and was forced to use a timeout – inserted senior point guard Olivia Gaines for the first time. Gaines has averaged seven minutes of playing time this season.
“She makes things happen from a defensive standpoint, her energy,” Staley said of Gaines. “She’s a one-woman press, herself. We say, ‘Go get the ball,’ and she finds a way to get the ball.”
Gaines followed orders. After USC pinned Duke’s Rbecca Greenwell against the sideline, Gaines picked her pocket and quickly called time out with 10.9 seconds remaining. In 7 seconds of action, Gaines made what might turn out to be USC’s biggest defensive play of the season.
That set up the final play, and Staley again wanted the ball in Mitchell’s hands. Her wild shot off a drive to the basket missed, but Wilson was there to rebound.
“When a play breaks down, she can find a way to get to the rim, and she did that,” Staley said of Mitchell. “Fortunately, for us, we have someone like A’ja Wilson to rebound the ball and put it back in.”
Wilson has proven to be every bit as good as the accolades she carried coming out of Heathwood Hall, where she was the consensus top-rated high school player in the country a year ago. Now, in the eighth game of her college career, she has proven to be a clutch performer.
Her game-winning basket sent a strong following of USC fans into a frenzy before she was mobbed by teammates as the desperation shot by Duke’s Ka’lia Johnson missed at the buzzer.
“I take my hat off to our team, which fought and fought and fought and had so much resolve in getting it done,” Staley said.
On the surface, the victory on a nationally ranked opponent’s home court will help USC immensely come NCAA tournament time. Beneath the surface, the victory showed why USC is considered a national championship contender.
It was the kind of game championship-caliber teams win.