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South Carolina women stay perfect, surge past N.C. State 78-59 to reach NCAA title game

CLEVELAND (AP) — Perfectly dominant. Nothing new for South Carolina.
South Carolina players celebrate at the end of a Final Four college basketball game against North Carolina State in the women's NCAA Tournament, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Cleveland. South Carolina won 78-59. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Perfectly dominant. Nothing new for South Carolina.

With All-America center Kamilla Cardoso scoring 22 points, the Gamecocks emphatically kept their unbeaten season going, advancing to the championship game of the women's NCAA Tournament with a 78-59 victory over North Carolina State on Friday night.

The talented and tenacious Gamecocks (37-0) led by just one at halftime before putting their full arsenal on display in the third quarter. They clamped down on defense, started knocking down 3-pointers and outscored the Wolfpack 29-6 to turn what had been a tense matchup into another one of their blowouts.

“We turned up the heat,” coach Dawn Staley said.

South Carolina will meet Caitlin Clark and Iowa for the national title on Sunday in a rematch of a Final Four game last year, when the Hawkeyes ended the Gamecocks' perfect season.

After rallying past UConn in Friday's later semifinal, Clark and her teammates will have their hands full. South Carolina appears to be on a mission.

“I could tell by our faces and voices,” said Gamecocks forward Ashlyn Watkins, who had 20 rebounds. “We wanted it more.”

Aziaha James scored 20 points on 6-of-17 shooting for No. 3 seed N.C. State (31-7), which knocked off a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed to get to Cleveland.

But the Wolfpack had no shot against the Gamecocks, who were a unanimous No. 1 most of the season in the AP Top 25 and are aiming to become the first undefeated national champions since UConn in 2016.

They look all but invincible.

“They just punched us in the mouth in the third quarter,” James said. “I felt like the third quarter really hurt us. I feel like we could have fought harder. It was 6-29. We can’t let things like that happen to win a championship.”

Cardoso added 11 rebounds while playing just 23 minutes.

She hurt her right leg late in the first half and returned in the third quarter, wearing a black compression sleeve. Staley had the luxury of resting her star center in the fourth quarter to make sure she's ready for Sunday.

“She’s not going to like this answer, but she’s a beautiful Brazilian warrior,” Gamecocks guard Te-Hina Paopao said of Cardoso. “She's just awesome, man. She’s going to play through some pain. She’s going to push through that. Knowing we have one more game, she’s definitely going to be OK.”

Watkins was just as dominant inside for the Gamecocks, getting 15 of her boards on the defensive end and scoring eight points. Raven Johnson added 13 points.

Saniya Rivers, who transferred from South Carolina to N.C. State after winning a title as a freshman, shot just 2 of 11 and had five turnovers as her former teammates made every touch a tough one.

N.C. State coach Wes Moore knew his team would have to play its best to have any chance of bringing down bigger, badder South Carolina.

On Thursday, he likened the semifinal to a David-vs.-Goliath matchup and promised his team would “put the stone in the sling and let it rip.”

The Wolfpack needed more than stones.

“I’ll probably throw up a few times when I watch that third quarter,” said Moore, who regretted not switching to a zone defense earlier. “I don’t feel like a very good coach after that butt-kickin’. But our players, you’ve got to have players.

“I always say you don’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule. You’ve got to have horses.”

Relishing the underdog role, the Wolfpack, who lost a double-overtime heartbreaker to UConn two years ago in the Elite Eight, were hoping to replicate some of the magic the school conjured in 1983. Back then, N.C. State's Jim Valvano-coached men's team shocked the hoops world by beating heavily favored Houston in the NCAA title game — an upset that helped define March Madness.

But unlike a year ago, when South Carolina stormed into the Final Four in Dallas with an identical 36-0 record before losing to Iowa, the Gamecocks kept this season pristine.

The 6-foot-7 Cardoso made sure of it despite not moving as well as usual after the injury. South Carolina, which won by an average of 29.6 points this season, left no doubt after halftime, showing its dominance to a sellout crowd and national TV audience.

“Kamilla is a strength of ours,” Staley said. "She’s 6-7. She’s agile. She can command the paint. She plays with a desire to win. She asked for the ball a couple of times as well, meaning get her the ball.

“It's that. It’s ‘I don’t want to lose, I don’t want our season to end in any way except the way I envisioned, and that’s winning the national championship.’ And when you can put your play behind your vision, it makes a beautiful memory.”

Paopao and Johnson made 3-pointers as the Gamecocks quickly stretched their lead to 10, and they closed the quarter with a dizzying 17-1 run that quieted a rowdy N.C. State crowd.

While this unprecedented season of women’s basketball has been largely driven by Clark’s assault on the record books with her logo-distance 3-pointers and charisma inspiring fans from coast to coast, one team rose to the top.

It’s been South Carolina all along.

These Gamecocks have ruled the roost with equal amounts of depth, talent and swagger.

Staley wasn’t sure what type of team she had when the season began after having to replace five starters from last year’s squad. She also worried about her young team’s carefree attitude and whether this group would mature.

But not only did the Gamecocks bond and get themselves together, they’re one win from cementing South Carolina as a dynasty.

“One more game left,” Paopao said. “We're excited for that.”


AP March Madness bracket: and coverage:

Tom Withers, The Associated Press