The alarm rang, and although Cal State Northridge tried to hit the snooze button, South Carolina heard it.
Groggy as they were, the Gamecocks woke up and slipped past the Matadors into the NCAA tournament round of 32 with a 73-58 victory.
“We’re not going to win any style points,” coach Dawn Staley said. “We are who we are. Cal State Northridge did some things that we’ve had trouble with all season long.
“I think we did what most No. 1 seeds do, and that’s win. I want to take some of the positives from our game.”
Staley wasn’t being mean. The Gamecocks (28-4) weren’t sharp or energetic on Sunday. They won, and will meet either Oregon State at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday with the Sweet 16 on the line, but there seemed to be a lack of take-over mentality.
Whether it was rust from not playing in more than two weeks or not recognizing that in the NCAA tournament everybody is playing at a higher level, USC was being punched by Cal State Northridge (18-15). The Matadors didn’t care that they were seeded 16th and USC was first, exhibiting more speed, more focus and more tenacity than USC for nearly the entire game.
When a double-digit lead was cut to four with nearly 13 minutes to play, the Gamecocks heard the bells ringing. Only one 16-seed has beaten a top seed in men’s and women’s tournament history, and they weren’t going to become the second.
“I think we were just getting adjusted,” Elem Ibiam said. “I think that was a big turning point for us.”
Using its height advantage, USC got the ball to centers Ibiam and Alaina Coates. Each had some problems getting the ball into the hole, but the Gamecocks began cleaning the glass and producing second chances. With Camille Mahlknecht (four blocks) getting in deeper and deeper foul trouble, USC slipped into gear.
Free throws, a troublesome spot at the SEC tournament, missed early but began splashing late. The Gamecocks stretched the four-point lead to 12, weathered another rally where CSUN cut it to six, then got back to the line. Khadijah Sessions hit four, Tiffany Mitchell aced six to complete her team-high 24 points, and USC pulled away.
Everything the Gamecocks did well was matched by something they didn’t do well. They wanted to lock down on Big West Player of the Year Ashlee Guay and did, holding her to six points on 2-of-9 shooting. But Janae Sharpe, averaging just over 12 points per game, exploded for 26.
“I thought we did a pretty good job getting control of two of their three perimeter players,” Staley said. “You’re not going to stop everybody.”
They wanted to be better on free throws and did, making the final margin a misleading 15 points with clutch shots late in the game. They also left 15 of 42 points on the floor.
They wanted to take care of the ball and soared to 52 rebounds, with 15 offensive boards keying the final run. They also had 11 turnovers.
But they won. Despite Aleighsa Welch smacking her head on the floor and twisting her ankle (“I’ll be fine,” she said) and allowing CSUN to get within six with three minutes to play, the Gamecocks won. They survived and advanced.
“I just think we had to get into the flow of the game, kind of settle down,” Mitchell said. “We had to get ourselves under control first before we got them under control.”
CS NORTHRIDGE (18-15)
Friess 0-3 0-0 0, Mahlknecht 2-10 0-0 4, Sharpe 9-20 5-7 26, Guay 2-9 0-0 6, Lister 3-9 3-4 9, Alexander 1-4 0-0 2, White 0-2 0-0 0, Cole 0-1 0-0 0, Thielges 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 1-2 0-0 2, Fong 3-8 3-4 9. Totals 21-68 11-15 58.
SOUTH CAROLINA (28-4)
Welch 5-11 1-2 11, Dozier 1-4 1-2 3, Ibiam 4-6 3-4 11, Sessions 1-3 4-4 6, Mitchell 5-11 13-17 24, Farmer 0-0 0-0 0, Gaines 0-1 0-0 0, Montout 0-0 0-0 0, Davis 0-1 0-0 0, Morrison 0-0 0-0 0, Roy 2-5 0-0 5, Coates 4-8 5-13 13. Totals 22-50 27-42 73.
Halftime_South Carolina 36-26. 3-Point Goals_CS Northridge 5-15 (Sharpe 3-6, Guay 2-4, Cole 0-1, Alexander 0-1, White 0-1, Friess 0-2), South Carolina 2-9 (Mitchell 1-2, Roy 1-3, Sessions 0-1, Dozier 0-3). Fouled Out_Mahlknecht, Sharpe. Rebounds_CS Northridge 36 (Fong, Sharpe 6), South Carolina 52 (Coates 16). Assists_CS Northridge 8 (Lister 4), South Carolina 17 (Mitchell 4). Total Fouls_CS Northridge 28, South Carolina 16. Attendance_1,365.