South Carolina keeps it loose on its way to a fourth straight Final Four

South Carolina keeps it loose on its way to a fourth straight Final Four

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

ALBANY, N.Y. — As the clock ticked down before the start of the Albany Region 1 final Sunday afternoon, a handful of South Carolina players gathered near half court at MVP Arena. There were no intense stares or motivational words. One trio took turns trying to juggle three basketballs, while two others looked on and laughed. Starters Kamilla Cardoso and Chloe Kitts watched from nearby, kicking a ball back and forth, soccer style.

This was the Elite Eight — a stage women’s basketball programs across the country work for years, even decades, to ascend to. For No. 1 seed South Carolina, it was another business trip en route to another Final Four. The lone undefeated team in the country beat No. 3 seed Oregon State, 70-58, to become the seventh program to reach four straight Final Fours.

South Carolina (36-0) is 107-3 in the past three seasons, a stretch that includes the 2022 national championship.

“I am excited, but I don’t want to get too high, too excited, because I felt that last year and we lost [in the national semifinals] last year,” South Carolina guard Raven Johnson said. “So I don’t want to get my hopes up so fast. So I just think it’s unfinished business, and I think we need to keep the same mentality.”

The Gamecocks were loose before the game and even looser afterward. This may not be a new position for the program, but that doesn’t make the squad any less appreciative, particularly as a younger group with five new starters.

The team dumped a water jug filled with confetti on Coach Dawn Staley afterward. Johnson danced to nearly every song that played over the loudspeakers, collected confetti off the floor and later did snow angels in another pile. Cardoso (12 points, nine rebounds, two steals), who was named the region’s most outstanding player, did a log roll in the shreds of colorful paper gathered at center court.

“Each time we get an opportunity to knock down some nets to go to the Final Four is really special,” Staley said, “because you don’t know when it’s going to be the last time that you’ll do it.”

Oregon State scored the first basket of the game Sunday and led for 51 seconds. That was it. Over the course the game, the Gamecocks proved to be too deep and too dominant inside. All nine players who took the court for South Carolina scored, and the Gamecocks’ bench outscored the Beavers’ reserves 38-14. South Carolina held a 51-37 rebounding edge, including 22 offensive boards that led to a 28-4 advantage in second-chance points, and outscored Oregon State 44-14 in the paint.

It’s not always about stats and how many points you score,” South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley said. “And I think this team showed that to the T. It’s going to cost you some individual awards and things like that, but when it comes to, like, winning, we’re going to always do that if you play together.”

The Beavers were supposed to be one of the teams that could hold up against South Carolina’s size. But 6-foot-4 sophomore Raegan Beers (16 points, eight rebounds) and 6-3 sophomore Timea Gardiner (10 points, 12 rebounds) found themselves in foul trouble in the first half and needed to sit for stretches. Still, Oregon State stayed within striking distance until midway through the third quarter, when Johnson hit her lone basket, a three-pointer from the corner, to start a 12-0 run that gave South Carolina a 55-41 lead. Freshman guard Tessa Johnson (team-high 15 points off the bench) and forward Sania Feagin scored two baskets apiece during the game-changing run. Oregon State never fully recovered, pulling as close as four points with 3:55 remaining but then being held scoreless the rest of the way.

“You’ve got a team that’s supposed to beat us,” Oregon State Coach Scott Rueck said. “They were supposed to beat us by 15 or 16 — somebody told me that — and everybody knows it was a closer game than it felt. We had to overcome a lot of adversity today.

“We’re a tough out. We were a tough out all year long. We’re battle tested, and we’re fearless. … I thought we looked fearless today, and I thought we gave ourselves a chance to win.”

The South Carolina defense stifled Oregon State throughout the afternoon, and a final stop summed up the game. Ashlyn Watkins (eight points, 14 rebounds, four blocks) blocked Gardiner’s jumper at the 1:53 mark, and Bree Hall (10 points) slashed in to force a held ball. The possession arrow gave the ball to South Carolina with 1:51 left and Oregon State trailing 65-58. That was a block by a 6-3 reserve forward on the perimeter against Oregon State’s second-best player, followed by a hustle play by a first-year starter that was on the championship-winning team as a freshman and is focused on title No. 2.

“I love playing defense,” said Watkins, whose energy set the tone all afternoon. “I love jumping and I just like being active on the defensive end. I think that’s what gets us started on the offensive end: good defense.”

Before the pregame juggling session began, the Gamecocks swarmed around the court, listening to the arena DJ while stretching and going through warmups. There was a little extra bounce in everyone’s step as Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” came on.

“I wish that I could have this moment for life”

“This is my moment, I just feel so alive”

This team has so much fun,” Raven Johnson said. “[There’s] time where we do have too much fun. Like, on the court, we dance, we juggle the ball. But when it’s time to play, when the ball goes up, it’s business. We’re ready to play. We want to win. So then after the game, then we still have fun.

“We’re so young, we just have so much joy in each other.”

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