The Daily Gamecock

Analysis: No. 1 South Carolina women's basketball clinches 2nd-straight SEC Tournament title in win over LSU

<p>FILE — The Gamecock women's basketball team huddles around head coach Dawn Staley during a timeout on Jan. 7, 2024. The team secured on Sunday afternoon its eighth tournament championship in the past decade.</p>
FILE — The Gamecock women's basketball team huddles around head coach Dawn Staley during a timeout on Jan. 7, 2024. The team secured on Sunday afternoon its eighth tournament championship in the past decade.

The No. 1 South Carolina women’s basketball team picked up another piece of hardware Sunday afternoon, clinching the SEC Tournament title in a 79-72 win over No. 8 LSU.

The victory solidified the Gamecocks’ place in the NCAA Tournament and marked South Carolina's eighth conference tournament championship in the past decade.

"Just being able to be called champions is just a great feeling. It's a great blessing and a great opportunity just to keep the journey going," senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said. "I'm very grateful for our team, the program and just everyone that's been supporting."

LSU started the game on the front foot, jumping out to an early 13-7 lead around the five-minute mark in the first quarter. The Tigers then went on a scoring drought that lasted more than three minutes, which allowed the Gamecocks to get back into the game.

LSU shot efficiently from behind the arc, going 4-7 from 3-point range — compared to South Carolina’s 4-13 — during the first half. But the Gamecocks kept the score close by capitalizing on the Tigers’ early turnover struggles. South Carolina forced LSU to commit 13 turnovers in the first half, which led to 16 points.

South Carolina also kept the score close despite having a less-established presence close to the basket. The Gamecocks were out-rebounded 22-12 in the first half, including 9-2 on offensive rebounds, but the team held the Tigers to just 5 second-chance points.

The second half started the exact opposite way for the Gamecocks. After heading into the halftime break with a narrow 36-32 lead, South Carolina started the half on a 10-1 run to hold LSU to a 12.5% shooting percentage (1-8), which led the Gamecocks to jump out to a 46-33 lead.

The rest of the third and fourth quarters would be defined by scoring runs for both teams, as neither the Gamecocks nor the Tigers gave an inch.

South Carolina’s lead grew to 13 points three minutes into the third quarter. But LSU stormed back shortly after with a 9-2 run over about the next three minutes to make the score 48-42.

Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley had a personal scoring run of her own late in the third quarter, contributing 10 points to another 9-4 run to restore the Gamecocks’ 13-point lead. Fulwiley, who also scored 10 first-half points, finished with a team-high 24 points on 8-12 shooting from the field. She recorded two assists and two steals in about 17 minutes of playing time.

She was also named SEC Tournament MVP after her efforts in the championship game and previous rounds, where she totaled 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and one steal against Texas A&M and Tennessee.

"I feel like basketball is a confidence, that's the key to basketball. I feel like my confidence is out the roof when I step on the court. I feel like nobody can guard me, check me," Fulwiley said. "It's really a mind thing, and I just told myself that I have to lock in and play better."

Head coach Dawn Staley said she has been impressed with Fulwiley's maturation throughout her freshman season.

"She's a learner," Staley said. "I know she just said she's out there hooping, but she's out there hooping and learning and grasping what it takes to play at a high level all the time."

South Carolina also went on an 8-2 scoring run spread across the third and fourth quarters to increase its lead to 10 points, only for LSU to respond with an 11-2 run to make it a 67-66 ball game with four minutes and 36 seconds remaining.

But the defining moment of the game came two minutes before the final buzzer during a tense confrontation between both teams. An intentional foul by LSU sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson on Fulwiley led to pushing and shoving at half court, which culminated in South Carolina senior center Kamilla Cardoso knocking Johnson to the floor.

All players who left the team’s benches and Cardoso, who was disqualified for fighting, were ejected from the game. Cardoso will also miss the first game of the NCAA Tournament as additional punishment for her part in the fight.

Paopao said South Carolina's players used the aftermath of the skirmish as an opportunity to regroup themselves before finishing the rest of the game.

"The main point was just, 'We gotta finish it out, these last two minutes. We just gotta finish it out, be composed. It's a mental thing, and we gotta stick together,'" Paopao said. "At the end of the game, we just gotta be there for each other and finish with high heads."

The team is looking to experience similar success as the team's postseason progresses, she added.

"I think everyone wants to feel this feeling again, so we just gotta get back in the lab and get back to work and just keep doing what we're going," Paopao said.

The Gamecocks (32-0, 16-0 SEC) will learn its seed and possible opponents in the NCAA Tournament during ESPN's Selection Sunday broadcast, which will air on the network at 8 p.m. on March 17.


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