South Carolina ousted from Final Four by Fighting Irish

uscwhoops-finalfourAfter trailing by as many as 12 points in the second half, an effort led by senior Aleighsa Welch willed No. 3/4 South Carolina back into the game. But No. 2/2 Notre Dame grabbed the lead with just 16 seconds to go, and the Gamecocks’ final shot was off the mark in a 66-65 decision in the national semifinals at Amalie Arena.

South Carolina struggled to find the basket out of the gate. Even added chances created by work on the offensive glass couldn’t help the Gamecocks find the net. While South Carolina got off to a slow start, Notre Dame took advantage as freshman Brianna Turner scored the Fighting Irish’s first six points on the way to a quick 15-3 advantage.

The Gamecocks tried to sway the momentum back their way out of the first media timeout, inserting Olivia Gaines, Bianca Cuevas and Alaina Coates, and shortly after, A’ja Wilson joined them on the court. Wilson blocked Kathryn Westbeld’s shot in the paint, and although Notre Dame retained possession, Gaines took it away. On the other end, Gaines and Wilson teamed up to find Coates for a tough shot in the paint. Cuevas continued the effort with layup and a drive to find Coates for another bucket in the lane. Wilson capped the two-minute run from the bench with a score to pull the Gamecocks to within four at 21-17 with 7:23 in the half.

The Fighting Irish missed nine straight shots, but turnovers plagued South Carolina and kept the Gamecocks from getting any closer. All-American Jewell Loyd broke the Notre Dame drought with a jumper to put her team on top 19-13 with 8:57 on the clock in the first half.

Steadily, the Gamecocks chipped away at the Notre Dame lead after getting the inside game going. By the 3:31 mark, South Carolina had pulled to within one at 25-24 after a Wilson score off an in-bounds play, but the Fighting Irish responded with seven unanswered points in just 60 seconds to push their lead back up to 32-24. The Gamecocks scored the last four points of the half and trailed by four at 32-38 at the break.

Just two and a half minutes into the second period, the Gamecocks tied the contest for the first time since the opening tip, thanks to a quick outlet pass from Coates to Tiffany Mitchell, who raced the length of the court to knot the game at 34-34. After the teams traded baskets on the next two possessions, Notre Dame scored six quick points to pull back ahead, 43-36, with 15:30 to go. After a South Carolina timeout, Notre Dame added a 3 from Michaela Mabrey to make the lead double digits again at 36-46.

South Carolina responded with an 8-0 run that took just over 90 seconds. First, Tina Roy found an open Coates on the block, then, Wilson took over. The freshman scored the game’s next six points to bring the Gamecocks to within two at 48-46 with 12:21 to play. Turner had an answer for Notre Dame with a three-point play.

Down 12 with 9:17 to play, Welch seized the moment and sparked the Gamecock comeback attempt. Cuevas hit the senior in the post, then, Welch went flying through the lane to put back a missed shot. Wilson found Welch on the next possession for her third-straight basket, and Mitchell drew the Gamecocks back within six at 58-64 with a pull-up jumper

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With four minutes to go, Mitchell brought the Gamecocks to within four, somehow finding the basket despite falling down in the lane as she released. South Carolina forced another miss on the other end, and Gaines drew a foul on the rebound. After she hit one of the resulting free throws, Coates drew Turner’s fifth foul. Coates’ tough night at the line continued, though, as she missed two free throws, but Welch was there again to snatch the rebound. Wilson hit a bucket and an offensive foul disqualified Lindsey Allen just ahead of a South Carolina timeout with 1:32 to go.

Out of the timeout, Mitchell’s shot was off, but once more, Welch was there to give South Carolina its first lead of the night with just 1:12 to play. On the other end, Welch stole the ball from Loyd to give the Gamecocks a chance to add some insurance. Welch’s shot rimmed out after the timeout, and the Gamecocks forced another miss from Loyd, but Madison Cable grabbed the missed shot and went under the basket to hit her first shot of the night. The basket broke a nearly eight-minute Fighting Irish scoring drought to put Notre Dame back on top 66-65.

The Gamecocks called their final timeout with 13.9 seconds remaining to set up the contest’s final play, but Mitchell was unable to create a shot or find an open teammate, and her last-second heave was off the mark.

Welch grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds to lead all players and added 10 points to record her 24th career double-double. Wilson netted 20 points to lead the Gamecocks’ offensive effort. Coates and Mitchell also reached double figures, with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Both Coates and Wilson collected nine rebounds each as South Carolina out-rebounded Notre Dame 45-37.

Photo courtesy of USC Athletics

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