South Carolina has accomplished a number of firsts during the Dawn Staley era. It can now add its first national title appearance to the list.
The Gamecocks rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to top Stanford 62-53 Friday night at the American Airlines Center in a national semifinal game.
USC outscored the Cardinal 42-24 in the second half to advance to Mississippi State on Sunday for the national championship.
“It’s incredible,” Staley said. “I’m happy for this team but also our former players, they put us in this position. They gave us our first Final Four appearance, and because of that appearance they allowed us once we got back here to advance.”
The Gamecocks were led by Allisha Gray, who scored a game-high 18 points, including 13 in the second half.
South Carolina All-American A’Ja Wilson added 13 points and pulled down a game-high 19 rebounds.
“We came here to have one of the best and most historical weekends in the history of South Carolina women’s basketball,” Staley said.
South Carolina’s offense struggled to get any rhythm going in the first half and particularly in the second quarter.
The Gamecocks were outscored 17-6 in the second period and trailed by as many as 10 before going into halftime with a 29-20 deficit.
But the Gamecocks didn’t panic. South Carolina opened the second half on a 19-4 run, taking a 35-33 lead on a Bianca Cuevas-Moore 3-pointer with 3:31 remaining in the third quarter. It was the first lead for USC since early in the second quarter.
The Gamecocks led the rest of the way with Stanford getting as close as three points twice in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina scored 42 points in the second half after being held to 20 in the first. Staley said she could tell during halftime that her team would be fine.
“The looks in their faces weren’t looks of defeat. It was looks of, ‘Ok, we’re going to figure it out,’” she said. “We couldn’t play that sleep time basketball. We were allowing Stanford to put us to sleep, and we knew they were going to do that. We just had to get to halftime and make our adjustments. No matter how much we were down I felt like we were going to make a comeback.”
As South Carolina’s offense picked up its rhythm the Gamecocks’ defense also improved.
Stanford was held to eight points in the third quarter and shot 37 percent for the game, including 29 percent from 3-point range.
“We built our reputation on defense,” Staley said. “You’re going to have bad shooting nights at times. This was one of them… The second half, I thought we just imposed our will from a defensive standpoint, sped the game up and got to playing at a pace which benefited our style of play.”
Wilson was held to 13 points in the game, including only four in the first half and admitted it was hard to stay calm as Stanford threw three and four defenders at a time at her.
After her teammates struggled in the first half they picked her up in the second.
The Gamecocks shot 47 percent from the field in the second half after shooting 26 percent in the first.
In addition to Gray’s 13 second-half points, freshman point guard Tyasha Harris added seven.
“My teammates rallied around me,” Wilson said. “Coach Staley kept positive thoughts into my mind. I think that kind of helped me overcome just kind of the way the game was going for me.”
Harris came up big down the stretch, scoring five points in the final minute.
South Carolina led by 41-37 entering the fourth quarter and the teams traded runs early on in the final period.
Gray made a layup and was fouled with 4:13 remaining and knocked down the free throw to give USC its largest lead of the game at eight.
But Stanford answered as Alanna Smith made a layup and 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to cut South Carolina’s lead to three.
Wilson made a free throw at the 1:35 mark to push Carolina’s lead to four and Harris’ jumper with 58 seconds remaining gave the Gamecocks a 56-50 lead.
Seconds later Cuevas-Moore’s layup pushed the lead to eight as the Gamecocks could feel they were close to making history.
Another Smith 3-pointer cut the lead to five, but Harris made three of four free throws down the stretch to secure the win.
“I just want to say to God be the glory that we’re in this position, to play for a national championship, something that is so very hard to do,” Staley said.
Johnson 1-2 0-0 2, McCall 7-19 0-0 14, McPhee 3-13 1-2 8, Roberson 2-4 0-0 5, Samuelson 0-2 0-0 0, Fingall 0-1 0-0 0, Smith 6-14 0-0 14, Carrington 1-1 0-0 2, Sniezek 3-6 2-3 8, Totals 23-62 3-5 53.
SOUTH CAROLINA (32-4)
Wilson 5-11 3-8 13, Cuevas-Moore 3-6 0-0 7, Davis 2-15 2-2 6, Gray 7-14 3-3 18, Harris 3-10 3-4 10, Herbert Harrigan 2-3 0-0 4, Cliney 1-4 2-4 4, Totals 23-63 13-21 62.
3-Point Goals: Stanford 4-14 (McCall 0-3, McPhee 1-3, Roberson 1-2, Samuelson 0-2, Smith 2-4), South Carolina 3-13 (Cuevas-Moore 1-2, Davis 0-2, Gray 1-4, Harris 1-3, Cliney 0-2). Assists: Stanford 13 (Sniezek 6), South Carolina 10 (Wilson 4). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Stanford 41 (McCall 14), South Carolina 43 (Wilson 19). Total Fouls: Stanford 16, South Carolina 11. A: 0.