South Carolina’s dance is over.
The Gamecocks’ most successful season in a decade ended Saturday night with a 76-60 loss to Stanford in the NCAA women’s tournament Sweet 16.
The undersized No. 25 Gamecocks (25-10) fought hard for much of the game and cut the deficit to five points with seven minutes left but could not overcome the second-ranked Cardinal’s height -- especially 6-foot-2 forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who scored 39 points.
In a game played three hours from Stanford’s campus, South Carolina, the fifth-seed in the Fresno region, missed several opportunities to get a lead on the top seeded Cardinal (34-1). USC struggled shooting, hitting 37 percent after making nearly half of its shots in earlier-round wins over Eastern Michigan and Purdue.
“I thought we played as well as we could play, considering who we were playing and the type of night Nnemkadi Ogwumike had,” USC head coach Dawn Staley said. “My hat goes off to our players, who fought so hard and gave every ounce that they had.”
Stanford started the game using its roster of 6-footers to lob balls over the smaller Gamecocks for easy buckets. Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who averages a national 10th-best 21 points a game, scored 20 points in the first half.
Then South Carolina held its ground in the paint - erasing an early 9-2 rebounding deficit. Freshman forward Aleighsa Welch helped spark a USC rally by bullying her way to eights points and seven rebounds in 10 minutes of the opening half.
“We just tried to win the hustle plays,” Welch said. “We wanted to at least challenge them.”
The game got physical at times with Chiney Ogwumike, who is nursing a hurt right knee, falling over Courtney Newton’s back on a rebound. USC guard Ebony Wilson hit Nnemkadi Ogwumike in the face while guarding her, then Chiney Ogwumike caught Wilson in the face with a stiff screen.
Missed chances were the story for USC in the first half. Twice in the final five minutes, USC could not score off a trio of consecutive stops when down five points.
South Carolina cut the lead to three points on La’Keisha Sutton’s jumper, but Stanford forward Joclyn Tinkle hit a three-pointer at the buzzer for a 36-30 halftime lead. The second half started at frantic pace with USC aggressively trying to snatch the ball from the Cardinal, including Ieasia Walker stealing an inbounds pass surrounded by three Stanford players. Sutton again cut Stanford’s lead to three points on a short jumper from the free-throw line and guard Markeshia Grant did the same on a three-pointer.
But Stanford did just enough in the paint to keep the lead though it didn’t pass into double digits until a little more than eight minutes left. The Gamecocks soon cut the lead to five points on Elem Ibiam’s short jumper and Walker’s free throws after a Charenee Stephens steal.
USC’s shots stopped falling and Stanford banged its way back with a 9-0 run into another double-digit lead with five minutes left and pulled away as the Gamecocks tired. South Carolina shot better in the second half, hitting about 40 percent in the second half, but the Cardinal topped that by shooting nearly 70 percent.
“It was tough not to get over that hump,” Sutton said. “It’s nothing we can get mad about. Stanford is a really good team.”
The Cardinal’s 76 points were the most USC has allowed this season and was just the second time the Gamecocks allowed an opponent to score more than 70 points. Nnemkadi Ogwumike’s 39 points on 14-for-22 shooting were the most scored by an opposing player this season.
“We challenged her. We threw different looks at her,” Welch said. “We didn’t want to give her anything easy and I don’t think we did. It’s tough to swallow when you know you’re playing good defense but every shot is going in.”
Stanford had won 14 of its previous 15 games by double digits and ranked fourth in the nation with a 22-point scoring margin this season.
Sutton, playing her last game with USC, led the Gamecocks with 18 points. Grant, another senior, added 14 points, while Welch notched eight points and 12 rebounds. Stanford, which has won 31 straight games, was led by Nnemkadi Ogwumike’s near-season high 39 points and 10 rebounds.
The loss concluded a season of firsts for South Carolina, including beating Tennessee at Knoxville and reaching the semifinals of SEC tournament after 21 seasons in the league. Staley also made it to her first Sweet 16 in seven NCAA trips as a coach.
South Carolina was making its first NCAA appearance in nine seasons. USC’s 25 wins this season were the most in since 2002 - the last time the Gamecocks reached NCAA Sweet 16.
But Staley has failed to beat Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer in three meetings as a coach. VanDerveer coached Staley and USC assistant coach Nikki McCray when she was a point guard in the 1996 Olympics and other international competitions.
USC had to play a second straight NCAA game at or near the home of its opponent. The Gamecocks beat Purdue, the fourth seed in the region and Big Ten tournament champions, on its homecourt, Mackey Arena on Monday.
The team will lose five seniors, but Staley said they left a legacy on the team after going from 10 wins four seasons ago to an NCAA Sweet 16.
“I think we were a resilient group,” Sutton said. “I think this is the beginning of something very special at the University of South Carolina. I think we’ll be back (in the NCAAs) every year from now on.”
SOUTH CAROLINA (25-10)
Walker 1-7 2-2 4, Grant 5-14 0-0 14, Sutton 9-18 0-0 18, Stephens 2-5 0-0 4, Newton 0-1 0-0 0, Sellers 0-1 0-0 0, Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, White 0-0 0-0 0, Bruner 3-12 2-6 8, Roy 0-1 0-0 0, Welch 4-8 0-0 8, Ibiam 1-1 2-2 4. Totals 25-68 6-10 60.
C. Ogwumike 4-8 3-7 11, N. Ogwumike 14-22 11-12 39, Kokenis 5-11 2-3 12, Orrange 2-8 1-1 5, Tinkle 3-4 0-0 7, Greenfield 0-0 0-0 0, La Rocque 0-0 0-0 0, Payne 0-0 0-0 0, Samuelson 0-0 2-2 2, Boothe 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-53 19-25 76.
Halftime: Stanford 36-30. 3-Point Goals: South Carolina 4-12 (Grant 4-7, Roy 0-1, Newton 0-1, Walker 0-1, Sutton 0-2), Stanford 1-1 (Tinkle 1-1). Fouled Out: Walker. Rebounds: South Carolina 38 (Welch 12), Stanford 36 (C. Ogwumike, N. Ogwumike 10). Assists: South Carolina 10 (Sutton, Walker 4), Stanford 15 (Orrange 5). Total Fouls: South Carolina 19, Stanford 11. Attendance: 3,754.