The last time the South Carolina women’s basketball team played Arizona State in November 2015, junior forward A’ja Wilson made two clutch free throws at the end of the game to clinch a victory for the Gamecocks.
This time, Wilson was the hero again, as she sank two free throws in the final 15 seconds to lift the Gamecocks to a 71-68 win and send Dawn Staley’s team to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season.
“We’re just elated to be moving on and going to the Sweet 16. I thought we beat a very good Arizona State team that, they gave us our best shot,” Staley said.
Despite trailing by double digits late in the third quarter, the Gamecocks remained composed, and put together a 9-0 run to take a 65-57 lead with just under seven minutes left of play. But, just as the Gamecocks wouldn't go away, the Sun Devils wouldn't either. They went on a 10-0 run to take a 68-67 lead with two minutes left in regulation.
At that point, Wilson did what she’s done so many times before in her tenure at Carolina: She delivered. In the final minute, the SEC Player of the Year netted a jumper and made two free throws to advance the Gamecocks to the next round of the NCAA tournament.
“I think the plan was just to get the ball, honestly,” Wilson said. “I mean, I think that was just a great feeling at the end, just kind of knowing we went out with a bang at the CLA. That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Wilson led the Gamecocks with a double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds on 50 percent field goal shooting. Junior guard Kaela Davis wasn’t far behind her with 20 points.
Battle of the defenses
Coming into the game, both the Gamecocks and Sun Devils were ranked as two of the top 35 defenses in the nation, allowing 56.4 and 57.4 points per game, respectively. The Gamecocks came up with 10 steals, including four from junior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, and a game-sealing steal from Davis with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
According to ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne, the Sun Devils were so focused on defending Wilson that they let Davis hit too many shots in the fourth quarter.
“We just let Davis get some layups down the stretch is what happened,” Turner Thorne said. “We were supposed to be right on her. We knew that was going to happen and we just weren’t as locked in as we needed to be with our home side.”
Foul trouble on both sides
South Carolina tallied 20 personal fouls, while ASU had 23, including a technical foul called on Turner Thorne in the fourth quarter.
“We just got called for a moving screen and right in front of that official, everybody saw on TV, there was a huge moving screen,” Turner Thorne said of the technical foul. “I wasn’t like the other coach on the court during the game complaining. I think that was probably my biggest frustration, because if you’re going to T up, then T up [everybody].”
Each team had four players with two fouls before halftime, and had to adjust their styles of play appropriately.
“I don’t get worried, you know, because I think we have enough [depth] to get through a game,” Staley said.
“Then, at the end, I thought we did a great job inserting [Mikiah Herbert Harrigan] to match up with their traditional post players and it worked out.”
The Gamecocks (28-4) will pack their bags and travel across the country to Stockton, CA, for the Sweet 16 on March 25. They’ll face the winner of Monday night’s second-round matchup between 12-seed Quinnipiac (28-6) and 4-seed University of Miami (24-8).
“At this point, less is more. I think the less time we spend on the floor and the more time maybe we spend watching a bit of film to see where we can get better,” Staley said.
“At this time of the season, you’re not going to change much. You’ll throw a wrinkle here or there. That’s what we did for this particular game and we’ll get ready to play the winner of Miami and Quinnipiac.”