by Jessica Hunt
[originally posted on ncaa.com]
DALLAS — South Carolina was down nine points at the half during Friday’s Final Four matchup with Stanford, and was shooting just better than 25 percent, including 2-of-14 from beyond the arc. Coach Dawn Staley knew her team would have to overcome the deficit and poor shooting by executing off-the-ball movement and playing within her team’s system.
“So, we were fortunate to be down nine,” Staley said. “But I just wanted to get our kids to the locker room at halftime because I knew, no matter how many points we were down, we could utilize our speed to get back into play — whether that’s trapping in the half court, whether that’s picking up full court, whether that’s coming off ball screens, setting our players up in positions where they could be effective.”
Staley noted that the hallmark of her South Carolina team – defense – was enough to keep Stanford within striking distance and make up for any offensive woes.
“That is exactly why, you know, we built our reputation on defense,” she said. “You’re going to have bad shooting nights at times. This was one of them. If we didn’t hold Stanford to 29 points [in the first half], which is not bad, it’s not bad. I thought we did what we needed to do from a defensive standpoint.”
Intangibles became the driving force behind the Gamecocks’ second half comeback that resulted in South Carolina’s 62-53 victory. Of the seven South Carolina players recording minutes, three were in double figures and all contributed points. Junior forward A’ja Wilson finished the night with 13 points and a game-high 19 rebounds.
“This was a great team win for us,” she said. “I think everyone contributed, everyone brought something different to the table and that’s what we need. That’s what makes us very hard to guard, makes us very hard to stop because that way they can’t focus on one player. They can’t focus on two players, they have to focus on the whole team.”
The stat sheet doesn’t capture hustle plays, focus or resiliency — but those were the pieces pulling the Gamecocks past its shooting droughts. Sophomore guard Doniyah Cliney said that without the extra effort, this team likely would not be playing in Sunday night’s championship game.
“This could have been our last game, or it could have gone into the championship,” she said. “We knew we needed to do everything – hustle plays, making free-throws, boxing out and containing the shooters.”
The Gamecocks will face SEC rival Mississippi State – a team they beat twice this season – in the title game Sunday night. Mississippi State stunned UConn 66-64 in overtime of the second semifinal. Like South Carolina, the Bulldogs overcame a poor shooting performance (25-of-67) with an intensity that cannot be measured. However, Wilson feels her Gamecocks are up to the challenge of competing against a familiar team.
“Oh, I can’t even put into words the feeling that I have right now,” she said. “This is a very special team. I feel like we’ve earned this spot that we’re in now. We know that we’re not done.”