The Daily Gamecock

South Carolina's season ends in heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame

Sixteen seconds. 

That’s how close South Carolina was to defeating Notre Dame Sunday night to clinch a spot in Tuesday’s national championship game. 

Reaching the national championship was a goal head coach Dawn Staley’s team set as soon as last season came to an end and with less than one minute remaining in its showdown against the Fighting Irish in the national semifinals, it looked like South Carolina would have a chance to play for a title. 

But Notre Dame had other plans and defeated the Gamecocks 66-65 in a game that featured several twists and turns. 

Despite outscoring the Fighting Irish 11-2 in the final 7:28, South Carolina’s historic season came to an end as Notre Dame senior guard Madison Cable scored a bucket with 16 seconds remaining to put her team ahead 66-65. Moments later, South Carolina junior guard Tiffany Mitchell’s last-second shot at the buzzer wouldn’t fall. 

“I feel that our team did what they had to do, put themselves in the position to win the game,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “Unfortunately for us, it came down to them making a play when they needed to make a play and we didn’t.”

The Gamecocks trailed for almost the entirety of the night, but a put-back by senior Aleighsa Welch gave South Carolina its first lead of the evening with just over one minute remaining. 

Just a few minutes beforehand, Notre Dame led by 10 points and appeared to be in full control of the game. But the Fighting Irish missed nine of its last 10 shots and South Carolina freshman forward A’ja Wilson led a ferocious comeback, leading the Gamecocks with 20 points while grabbing nine rebounds. 

Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, the one shot that Notre Dame hit late in the game is the one that mattered the most. 

For Welch, it hurts for the season to come to an end in such heartbreaking fashion. 

“Anytime you end your season, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Welch said. “I credit us, I credit my teammates for still fighting and never dropping their heads.”

Led by junior guard Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame enjoyed success on offense for much of the night as South Carolina struggled to stop the Fighting Irish from scoring. 

Meanwhile, the Gamecocks had a tough time manufacturing points, shooting only 33 percent from the field in the first half. 

In the blink of an eye, Notre Dame held a 12-point lead just five minutes into the game as South Carolina made just one of its first 12 shots as the Gamecocks got off to another slow start for the third consecutive game. 

Meanwhile, Notre Dame was able to get easy looks at the basket frequently in the opening minutes and the Fighting Irish led 15-3 thanks to key contributions from Loyd, sophomore forward Taya Reimer and freshman forward Brianna Turner. 

The trio would combine to score 55 of Notre Dame’s 66 points with Loyd leading the Fighting Irish with 22 points. 

Still, South Carolina weathered the storm following a rough opening like it did in last weekend’s wins over fourth-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded Florida State and trailed by just four points come halftime. 

Like she did in the Gamecocks’ victory over the Seminoles in the Elite Eight, freshman Bianca Cuevas played a big factor in South Carolina’s turnaround after a less-than-ideal beginning. 

When Cuevas entered the game for the first time, South Carolina trailed 13-3, but the Gamecocks went on a 10-4 run during the next seven minutes with the Bronx, New York native running the point. 

After a bucket by sophomore center Alaina Coates, South Carolina tied the game at 36-36 just a few minutes into the second half. 

But each time South Carolina would make a run, Notre Dame would answer the call. A 10-0 run by the Fighting Irish in the next three minutes after the scores evened put head coach Muffet McGraw’s team back up by double-digits. 

Ultimately, South Carolina proved to have one last run in them as it led in the final minute before Notre Dame was able to get the victory. 

The loss closes the door on a season that saw South Carolina set a program record in wins, while also winning the SEC tournament for the first time ever.