By Meghan Rominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS — An impassioned Dawn Staley welcomed her players into the timeout huddle, galvanizing them with screams and high fives. The Gamecocks had a nine-point lead, but the win wasn’t yet secured – they were only up 11-2 with five minutes left in the first quarter.
But it was clear that Staley, who this week described herself as a dream merchant and odds beater, wouldn’t be denied. Under Staley’s leadership and junior forward Aliyah Boston’s 23 points and 18 rebounds, the Gamecocks defeated the Louisville Cardinals 72-59 in the first national semifinal.
“Last year we lost in the Final Four, but this year we knew that we were going to be tested, and this is the hump that we need to get over,” said South Carolina’s Boston after the game. “And we got over that tonight and we’re on to the National Championship game, so we’re really excited.”
South Carolina (34-2) advances to its second NCAA final in program history. It will face the winner of the second semifinal between UConn and Stanford, two teams it beat during the regular season. Friday’s win marked South Carolina’s NCAA-leading 13th win against a ranked opponent this season.
“First, I just want to say that Louisville did an extremely great job of just competing,” Staley said. “We could never put them away because of their fight and their competitiveness and their ability to hang in there and defend and score and turn us over. They created a great environment for all of women’s basketball fans to be excited about.”
Boston, who has won every national player of the year award so far, was omnipresent in Friday’s win, making crisp passes, boxing out on both ends of the floor, and consistently finding the perfect positioning to put up a shot.
“With the awards, I’m really blessed, but my main focus is bringing home a national championship Sunday night, so I’m just really locked in on that,” Boston said.
“We were able to continue to move the ball and it opened up for me to get more scoring opportunities,” she added.
Five Gamecocks scored in double figures, with guard Brea Beal scoring 12 points, guard Destanni Henderson adding 11 points and guard Zia Cooke and forward Victaria Saxton adding 10 points each.
The Gamecocks never backed off and pressured Louisville into rushing possessions and overshooting layups, with the Cardinals only making 12 of 26.
While the Gamecocks were impressive in their quest for their second Final Four win in program history, their fan base added an extra push throughout the game that fueled the hard-fought win.
South Carolina’s fanbase transformed the seemingly-neutral site into a home game.
During a halftime presentation announcing Dawn Staley as the 2022 WBCA NCAA Division I National Coach of the Year, Gamecock fans unleashed near-deafening screams.
Throughout the game, South Carolina effectively neutralized Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith, holding the sophomore guard to nine points on 4-of-11 shooting. Van Lith, who entered Friday night averaging 21.5 points per game through the NCAA women’s tournament, couldn’t successfully penetrate South Carolina’s all-consuming defense.
“I think they did a really good job of making it hard for me to even get the ball. They obviously clearly were not going to let me get touches,” Van Lith said.
“They did a good job of executing their game plan with me, and I’ll take that and learn from it.”
Louisville forward Emily Engstler provided the main spark for the Cardinals, finishing with 18 points and nine rebounds. Forward Olivia Cochran and guard Kianna Smith both added 14 points.
While disappointed by his team’s inability to advance to its third national championship in program history, Louisville head coach Jeff Walz choked up at the postgame press conference for reasons beyond the loss.
“I told them in the locker room, you don’t ever want to say that’s your favorite team, because then all your past teams get mad at you,” Walz said after the game. “But I’d put this group right up there at the top.”
Looking toward the championship game, South Carolina and Staley are prepared and ready for the upcoming challenge.
“I think just with anything, life in general, it’s going to throw tests at you. You’re going to have to pass the tests or you’re going to have to retake them,” Staley said after the win.
“We look forward to other tests to take. Hopefully, we’ll have to pass that one in the next game.”