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South Carolina ‘turned up the heat’ to rout N.C. State at the Final Four

South Carolina ‘turned up the heat’ to rout N.C. State at the Final Four

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

CLEVELAND — The South Carolina locker room just might be a magical place, despite what Coach Dawn Staley says.

Gamecocks center Kamilla Cardoso painfully limped back to the area during a phenomenal second quarter of Friday night’s national semifinal and came out after halftime as if the injury had never happened. The rest of her teammates joined her at the break with a one-point lead over North Carolina State, but they all emerged from the tunnel and led by 24 just 10 minutes later.

The scene at Rocket Mortgage Arena was a familiar one, with undefeated and top-seeded South Carolina simply overwhelming its opponent. The No. 3 seed Wolfpack kept it close for the opening 20 minutes, but after the full 40, the Gamecocks were headed back to the NCAA tournament championship game for the second time in three seasons with a 78-59 victory.

“It wasn’t magic,” Staley said. “It was just simple basketball. We just started getting stops, and we got easy buckets.”

Mysticism aside, Staley has led South Carolina to four consecutive Final Fours and to six of the past nine. Sunday will be its third title game, and the Gamecocks won both of the others. Staley and her defense-first mind-set is a constant year in and year out, and she won her second AP coach of the year award this week with a team that lost five starters, including four WNBA draft picks, from last season.

With a new, deeper roster that has tweaked its style of play — capitalizing on improved perimeter shooting — South Carolina (37-0) has stormed its way to another championship game without a single loss.

“I felt like this was the South Carolina team they’ve had,” N.C. State Coach Wes Moore said. “Because the, obviously, presence of Cardoso on the block is tough to match up with. And then they have so many players that are capable of knocking down three-point shots. Unfortunately that’s kind of what happened in the third period, actually the second half.”

The Gamecocks outscored the Wolfpack 29-6 in the third quarter, and those 29 points tied the most ever scored in a single quarter of a national semifinal. N.C. State (31-7) went 1 for 11 from the field in the quarter, and the six points were tied the fifth-fewest points in a single quarter in program history. Seven different players scored for South Carolina in the period, including four that hit at least one three.

“I like the fact that we turned up the heat,” Staley said. “I mean, we put a lot more pressure on them to go deeper in their offense. We put a lot more pressure on the basketball, especially their point guards, the people that were initiating their offense.

“So if you get them to play a little bit outside of their comfort zone, you’re disrupting and dictating. I thought we did a lot more of that in the third quarter that created some easy buckets for us.”

While the Gamecocks led 32-31 at halftime, the primary concern was Cardoso, who finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 center was unstoppable in the second quarter, scoring 12 straight South Carolina points and pushing the Gamecocks’ lead to six points, but she went down with a lower leg injury after going to the ground following a missed layup. She immediately started limping and struggled to get up and down the court. At the next break in play, Cardoso subbed out and went straight up the tunnel and toward the locker room. N.C. State took advantage of the missing star and closed the second quarter on a 7-2 run to cut the deficit to just one at the break.

“Kamilla is a warrior,” said South Carolina forward Ashlyn Watkins, who grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds off the bench. “She’s not going to let an injury like that affect her.”

There was no fire-and-brimstone speech at halftime to energize the team. Simply a matter-of-fact reevaluation of the details on the floor. Moments later came the game-altering third quarter that included an 11-0 run that buried the Wolfpack. Eight different Gamecocks scored over the 40 minutes, including seven with at least six points. That deep roster seems to come at opponents in waves, and the South Carolina bench outscored the N.C. State bench 30-12. That depth comes with size, and that led to a 46-32 rebounding advantage and a 44-20 edge in points in the paint.

Aziaha James led N.C. State with 20 points.

“Coach says it might not happen in the first half, but the third, fourth quarter is when it hits teams,” South Carolina guard Raven Johnson said. “We can sub and don’t miss a beat. So I think that it hits in the third or fourth quarter when we start putting the subs in and they start being tired. I think you see that.”

Afterward, the celebration actually felt subdued considering many of the Gamecocks’ key players were headed to the championship game for the first time as key contributors. There was no big to-do at center court. Instead the Gamecocks smiled and gave out handshakes and some hugs, but they seemed like they’d been there before. They have, but not as the ones leading the way. Some of those former teammates were in the building: WNBA rookie of the year and all-star Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke were both waiting for South Carolina as they walked off the court.

All insisted there’s no satisfaction yet. That would come only after another win Sunday.

“We don’t really know what we’re doing — how real this is,” Johnson said with a smile. “History? … I don’t think we really know. We’re just out here playing. We just want one thing: Win a national championship.”

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