December 8, 2023

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Powers South Carolina to win its fourth straight Finals game. Virginia Tech makes it first.

GREENVILLE, South Carolina — The text has become routine for South Carolina at this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament. In the first half, reigning champs South Carolina often looks surprisingly vulnerable, perhaps on the brink of its first loss of the season, and poised to be on the wrong side of a massive March upset that has filled them.

But in the second half, the Gamecocks decimated the teams, and everyone remembered why they are the top seed and likely favorite to repeat as champions.

The Gamecocks followed that path again Monday night in front of a wild crowd as they beat second seed Maryland, 86-75, to advance to their fourth straight Final Four. Aaliyah Boston led the Gamecocks with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, recording her ninth double-double in the NCAA Tournament.

On Friday in Dallas, South Carolina will play No. 2 ranked Iowa State, which is led by Caitlin Clark in scoring and assisting. In the other semifinal, Louisiana State will face Virginia Tech, who beat Ohio State Monday night for their first Final Four berth in program history.

“I know what it feels like to lose,” said South Carolina guard Priya Bell. “I know the feeling of being brought home. So I mean, every game we’ve played this season, we’ve played, you know, with that feeling on our minds, on our chest and going into whatever game we play. We don’t want that.”

The South Carolina players gathered in the middle of the field and threw a Powerade cooler full of candy at coach Dawn Staley. Each player, coach, and assistant coach cut off portions of the net, leaving most of it to Staley, who finally climbed up the ladder and placed the remainder of the net around her neck. She slowly turned to each side of the crowd, as fans roared like she was a rock star in concert.

“I would just like to thank our fans, you know, if they wanted to take a picture from the road in the stands,” Staley said.

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Many of South Carolina’s opponents deploy a zone defense, with their guards hanging below the free throw line to help defend the massive forwards. But Maryland has chosen a different approach.

The Terrapins used a full court press, which at first seemed like a bad decision but quickly helped Maryland force fumble passes and rushes on South Carolina’s offense. Maryland led by 6 points after the first quarter, with South Carolina and Staley feeling frustrated and otherwise the dominant team they had been all year.

But South Carolina’s physicality landed the Maryland Stars in nasty trouble. Diamond Miller and strong point guard Sean Sellers were benched for most of the first half due to two fouls. While those two were out, Maryland fell back to zone defense, and South Carolina got more comfortable. Zia Cook erupted with 9 points in the second quarter, and South Carolina turned the game around to take an 8-point lead at halftime.

The challenge in stopping South Carolina, Maryland learned Monday, is its depth. Most league teams play their stars almost the entire game at this time in the season, primarily using the reserves to spot starters who are in serious trouble.

But South Carolina regularly trades nearly its entire starting lineup with players of roughly the same quality who also often have a size advantage over their opponents. Take, for example, Camila Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 center who was a first-year freshman in the Atlantic Coast Conference at Syracuse before moving to South Carolina two seasons ago and having a backup role for the Gamecocks.

“The waves they send at you off the bench as they tire you out are with such physical strength and their size,” said Maryland coach Brenda Friese. “You obviously saw that it affected us with our huge problems,” she added.

Cardoso ensures Boston doesn’t have too much cut off defensively, and when they’re in the game at the same time, it’s usually a team party.

Raven Johnson, a sophomore guard who was the No. 2 player in her high school class, similarly comes off the bench behind guards Cook and Keira Fletcher.

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“Anybody off the bench can start on any major team,” Boston said after the team’s Round of 16 victory over UCLA, “but you know everybody decided to come in and play Coach Staley under that program, and we’re using it to our advantage.”

That depth was the difference on Monday. Miller and Boston are projected to be the top two picks in this year’s WNBA Draft, but Miller’s backup team pales in comparison. Miller tried to ignite her team with drives both offensively and defensively, but she couldn’t plug the deficit. She led all scorers with 24 points, in what would likely be her final game in Maryland.

Virginia Tech finished last in the Women’s Final Four, defeating Ohio State, 84-74, Monday night in Seattle behind shooting Georgia Amory and the inside presence of Elizabeth Kitley. Hockey joins Iowa, South Carolina and Louisiana in Dallas.

Virginia Tech was an underdog of sorts that, despite being the top seed, didn’t advance that far in the tournament. Their eighth-round opponent, the Buckeyes, knocked out UConn in commanding fashion to get into this game, becoming the first team to deny the Huskies a trip to the Final Four since 2007.

Virginia Tech was leading at every point of the tournament until Ohio State took the lead late in the first quarter. Before the game, Ohio State coach Kevin McGiff said he knew his team would have his hands defensively. His affection is proven correct; When Virginia Tech regained the lead, it didn’t give it up.

“I think we wanted it more,” Keightley said after the game. “It was something we put in place, and I think once this group of girls put their mind to something, it would be really hard to deter us from that.”

Ohio State has been gassed a bit, too, McGough said. Saturday’s 73-61 victory over OConn took a lot out of everyone. “We didn’t have quite the same energy in the press, and when you don’t have it, it’s hard because you can really get hit on the back end and give up easy baskets,” he said.

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One of Ohio State’s biggest challenges was containing Amoore, Virginia Tech’s star guard. “She’s quick, she’s really skilful, she sees the floor really well,” Buckeyes guard Jesse Sheldon said of Amoore after the game. “This caused us trouble.”

The game could have been played completely differently. Early in the second quarter, Amoore fell on the court after a hit under the basket and came off with a bang. She left the floor for a few moments before returning to play. Fans held their breath, knowing it was called the team drive. She returns after a short break, stating that she is good at playing. Amoory finished with 24 points, while Keatley had 25 points and 12 rebounds.

“She’s the reason we’re here,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said in an interview with ESPN before the start of the fourth quarter.

Before the game, Virginia Tech players were asked how they approached the opportunity. They said that each of their accomplishments was a “first” for them. First round of 8. Their first round Final Four. They are hoping for a first title if they can get two more wins together.

“We didn’t come this far to get this far,” Kayla King said before the game. She helped ensure that with 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists.

Virginia Tech will face No. 3 ranked LSU in the National Semifinals Friday night.

None of that fully arrived with Brooks. “Obviously it’s not easy,” he said after the team cut the net. “One day I’m going to sit down and realize how hard it was to get here and realize we’re one of four teams still standing.”

Chris Rimm Reported from Greenville, South Carolina; Talia Mensburg Reported from New York.