As Dawn Staley likes to call them, it was another “knock-down, drag out” fight between South Carolina women’s basketball and Florida State in the NCAA tournament.
But for the third time in the past five years, the Gamecocks came out on top over the Seminoles, winning 72-64 on Sunday at Halton Arena to advance to the program’s sixth consecutive Sweet 16.
“I am super proud,” coach Dawn Staley said. “It is about sustaining and keeping your program in a place that you are competing for national championships. You have that in front of you.”
Fourth-seeded USC (23-9) had to overcome a rough day rebounding and needed several clutch plays and free throws late to survive and advance — Florida State had 27 offensive boards, but Carolina went 20-for-24 from the free throw line, including 8-for-10 in the fourth quarter.
“Just being resilient, still scrapping after they got the ball, trying to get on hands on and giving three or four efforts,” junior guard Tyasha Harris said of how USC fought past its disadvantage rebounding.
In a contest featuring six lead changes and no double-digit leads, USC entered the fourth quarter leading 52-51 and somehow managed to hold on.
A big reason why was senior forward Alexis Jennings, who had seven points through the first three quarters, then put the Gamecocks on her back, scoring nine points in the fourth.
“I’m a senior on this team, this is my last go-around. So it’s one of those “give it all you got” (situations),” Jennings said of the final quarter. “Obviously things didn’t go my way completely tonight, but I know I that got younger kids looking up to me, so I just gotta keep a straight face and keep going, because I know my teammates trust and believe in me.”
FSU, however, refused to go away. With junior guard Nicki Ekhomu leading the way with 19 points, the Seminoles clawed back from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter and a five-point gap in the fourth to tie the game at 60. With 2:31 to play, Staley called timeout.
Coming out of the break, Jennings converted an and-one layup, only for Ekhomu to drill a jumper.
Freshman Victaria Saxton was then fouled under the basket just before the shot clock expired and made both free throws. FSU responded by missing three shots on the next possession, but collecting the offensive rebound every time, finally grabbing a layup to make it a one-point game again.
But with less than 30 seconds to play, junior guard Tyasha Harris came up huge, driving the lane and sinking a layup while being fouled. She added the free throw to make it 68-64.
From there, Florida State had no answer, missing a pair of 3-point attempts and committing fouls both times while going for the rebound to keep sending the Gamecocks back the line. USC obliged by making the free throws, securing the win.
“We gave them opportunities,” FSU coach Sue Semrau said. “You felt the squeeze as it got tight, like we gotta make something happen. That’s the youth being on this stage. And when it didn’t happen, the opportunities they had on the other end and the times that we fouled, that was really the difference between us and a more veteran team.”
Harris’s clutch three-point play late formed a fitting bookend for a game in which she started the scoring by driving to the basket and getting the hoop and harm.
It was junior guard Te’a Cooper, though, that starred for the Gamecocks early, as she had 10 points in the first quarter, helping Carolina to bounce back from a pair of 7-0 runs for the Seminoles.
Junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who missed one half of the first round game due to a coach’s decision, then tied the game at 20 with a 3-pointer just before the end of the first quarter. She carried that momentum over into the second period, scoring 10 points, all during a 12-4 run that gave the Gamecocks a 37-30 advantage at the half.
“Just being ready when my number was called and going in and performing,” Herbert Harrigan said of her mindset off the bench.
The Gamecocks stretched their lead to nine points, its biggest on the day, early in the third quarter. But FSU steadily chipped its way back into the contest with a 7-1 run capped by a 3-pointer from sophomore forward Kiah Gillespie.
Herbert Harrigan, who led all scorers with 20 points, pushed USC back ahead slightly with a late layup, but Florida State got a fast break layup just before the end of the third, setting up the intense finish.
“Our bond is getting stronger and stronger,” senior captain Doniyah Cliney said. “You can see it on the court, it shows a lot that we all care for each other and we’ll fight for each other no matter what.”
Next: The Gamecocks will play the winner of No. 1 seed Baylor vs. No. 8 seed California in the Sweet 16 in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Saturday.