Lady Gamecocks’ season comes to end in Sweet 16

No. 25 South Carolina’s season came to an end in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Saturday night as the Gamecocks (25-10) fell to No. 2 Stanford 76-60 at Save Mart Center.

In the final game of the day in the Fresno Regional, the fifth-seeded Gamecocks out-rebounded the taller Cardinal but struggled to stop the Stanford front court on the offensive end. Senior guards La’Keisha Sutton and Markeshia Grant led the South Carolina offense with 18 and 14 points, respectively, while freshman Aleighsa Welch fought for a career-high 12 rebounds, including eight offensive.

“I thought we played as well as we could play, considering who we were playing and the type of night Nnemkadi Ogwumike had,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “My hat goes off to our players who fought so hard and gave every ounce that they had. I think our seniors left a legacy for us to emulate. So, hopefully we’ll get back to this point and we’ll go farther.”

The Gamecocks fought the Cardinal tooth and nail in the first half and, despite 20 points from Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike, trailed by just six at the break. South Carolina’s spark came from the unflappable Welch, who posted eight points and seven rebounds in just 10 minutes of the first period. Her fearless play helped South Carolina recover from a 20-11 deficit down the stretch of the first half.

The game began just the way everyone predicted it would with Stanford going relentlessly inside and the Gamecocks lining up outside shots hoping to open up the driving lanes. While Markeshia Grant hit a pair of early 3s, the Stanford inside game was working to perfection as Ogwumike helped the Cardinal to a 20-11 advantage just 6:30 into the game. The Gamecocks chipped away at the deficit, though, competing hard in the perfect image of their head coach.

La’Keisha Sutton opened a 6-1 run with a put back of her own miss, and Welch was battling on the boards, pulling down two offensive rebounds in one possession. After a Stanford free throw, Sutton drove the lane a dropped off a perfect pass to Welch on the left block. After fighting for a defensive rebound on the other end, the freshman came back and scored off her offensive rebound for a 21-17 score.

The teams were trading baskets down the stretch of the half with Welch pounding away inside with the Cardinal front court. With the clock winding down, Elem Ibiam hit a pair of free throws to pull the Gamecocks within 33-30. South Carolina defended well in the last seconds, but Stanford’s Joslyn Tinkle hit a tough 3-pointer at the buzzer to send her team into the locker room with a 36-30 lead.

In the second half, the Gamecocks’ senior guards dropped the hammer on both sides of the ball, and the Gamecocks hovered around a three-point deficit for the first five minutes of the half. Grant’s fourth 3-pointer of the night made it a 47-44 game, Stanford quickly stretched it to a 59-48 advantage with 8:28 to play as the Gamecocks’ shots began to come up just short and Nnemkadi Ogwumike continued to stymie the South Carolina defense.

The Gamecocks had one final surge in them, though. After reeling in a pair of offensive rebounds, Charenee Stephens hit a turn around jumper to start a 6-0 spurt. A pair of Cardinal turnovers led to a layup from Elem Ibiam and a pair of free throws from Ieasia Walker, which brought the Gamecocks within five at 59-54 with 7:02 on the clock. Stanford pushed back, reaping the rewards of its steady pounding of inside play, with its most impressive run of the night, scoring 14 of the game’s next 16 points over a four-minutes span to take a commanding 73-56 lead with just three minutes to play.

Grant’s four 3-pointers were just one short of the Gamecocks’ NCAA Tournament record. Sutton handed out four assists with her game-high 18 points. Walker also delivered four assists to tie for team-high honors. Welch’s eight offensive rebounds were the second-most by a Gamecock freshman in school history, falling just one shy of the record.

Both Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike finished with double-doubles, led by Nnemkadi’s 39 points and 10 rebounds. Chiney added 11 points and matched her sister’s 10 boards for game-high honors.

South Carolina out-rebounded Stanford 38-36 and took 15 more shots than the Cardinal. But Stanford’s 52.8 percent shooting overshadowed the Gamecocks’ 36.8 percent effort. The Cardinal blocked nine shots and out-scored South Carolina in the paint 44-30.

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