Watch A'ja Wilson and the Gamecocks final home game of the season
There was just a hint of bittersweet in the air at Colonial Life Arena on Sunday night, as A'ja Wilson played her final game in a Gamecock uniform at home in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
But for the most part, it was just about the perfect sendoff for the senior All-American, as South Carolina (28-6) defeated Virginia, 66-56, to advance to its fifth straight Sweet 16, with Wilson once again leading the way with 25 points and 11 rebounds, her 23rd double-double of the season.
"The importance of the game really kept me tight and focused. I knew it was survive to advance, and that was the job," Wilson said of how she blocked out the emotion of the day.
In a game of run countered by run, the first five combined field goal attempts of the game fell for the Cavaliers and Gamecocks, but the rest of the first quarter proved to be an offensive slog as both defenses crowded the paint and the two teams went more than three minutes without scoring a single point.
"I was actually surprised they played as much zone as they did at the beginning, because they're a pressure defensive team," USC head coach Dawn Staley said of Virginia. "So it was just us just waiting. Sometimes you can't just pull away from teams. You have to wait until the fouls pile up, and then you find a way to string a couple of baskets together to open the game up."
After 10 minutes, USC led 15-12 thanks to late jumpers from guards Tyasha Harris and Bianca Jackson, but that string of baskets to put the game away never materialized. Instead, UVA rallied to take the lead early in the second quarter with a 7-0 run, with help from sophomore 6-foot-9 center Felicia Aiyeotan, who dished out an assist and sank a basket in the mini-rally.
However, South Carolina's smaller but more experienced post players attacked Aiyeotan, drawing three fouls before the half to force her to the bench. Once she came out of the game, the Gamecocks went on an 8-3 run to close out the second quarter with a 30-25 lead. Aiyeotan had just two points and four rebounds on the game.
"That was one of our key points in our gameplan," redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings said of forcing Aiyeotan to pick up fouls. "I feel like we executed that very well."
Coming out of the halftime break, USC pushed the lead to 12 as Harris bounced back from a rough 3-point outing in the first round against North Carolina A&T, splashing home a crucial 3-pointer, while Wilson dished out three assists consecutively as the defense swarmed her, leaving her teammates wide open. Harris would end the game with 10 points, six assists and four rebounds.
"Basketball is a game of runs, so we knew they had a run in them of course, but at the same time we had a run in us as well. So we just really kept a positive energy in the huddles and talked about just staying focused, we can't let the run get past us, that's the game of basketball. When you have a great point guard like Ty, she brought us all together," Wilson said.
"My teammates and coaches (instilled) confidence in me, just telling me to keep shooting and keep playing. I'm my hardest critic, so that's probably the worst thing that could be happening (getting down on myself), but they keep me going and keep pushing me," Harris said of how she bounced back from Friday's game.
Virginia guard J'Kyra Brown, however, stopped the run with an 8-2 run fueled entirely by three field goals from the senior Cavalier.
"It's going to take more than a quarter, or sometimes more than two quarters to put teams away and gain some separation," Staley said of her team's mindset as UVA rallied. "Virginia's a very good team. ... They haven't been in this situation before and the pressure was all on us, so I think they were playing a lot freer than we were. But we were confident."
Into the fourth quarter, Virginia closed to within three points thanks to sophomore guard Dominique Toussaint, who had 13 points on the night, but Wilson then proceeded to take over, scoring eight points, with some help from junior guard Doniyah Cliney, who hit her lone field goal of the night, a 3-pointer, to spark a 7-0 run that restored the lead to 12.
"When I don't see the first five shots (go in) ... it kinda sucks to see it not fall, so when I finally got one, it was like a pressure-reliever," Cliney said.
While the home portion of its schedule is now complete, South Carolina and Wilson still have at least one more game to play in the Sweet 16, against the winner of No. 11 Buffalo-No. 3 Florida State, in Albany, New York, next Saturday.