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Apr 4, 2024 5:31 pm

Undefeated, determined South Carolina stares down NC State in Final Four

South Carolina

CLEVELAND — A year ago, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks rolled into the Final Four undefeated and seeking to repeat as national champions before they were upset by Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

South Carolina is again undefeated and the No. 1 overall seed in the Women’s NCAA Tournament with Clark and Iowa on the other side of the bracket. And the Gamecocks are aiming to make sure that their run doesn’t stop in the national semifinals again. On deck in Friday night’s Final Four at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse for the Gamecocks is No. 3 North Carolina State.

While South Carolina isn’t looking back, the standard Staley has set remains for a team with five new starters.

“It’s kind of hard to apply what happened last season to this team. It’s just a completely different team. I know we all want the same thing,” Gamecocks junior Bree Hall said. “We’re just so focused on us and want to win every game.”

South Carolina (36-0) is unblemished, but Staley’s bunch has looked vulnerable in March.

The Gamecocks needed a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Kamilla Cardoso — the first of her career — to beat Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and held off a late run from Indiana, securing for a four-point victory in the Sweet 16 in Albany, N.Y. In the Elite Eight, Oregon State trailed by just two points midway through the third quarter before South Carolina pulled away for a 12-point win.

Much like their 14-loss men’s basketball program crashing the NCAA Tournament Final Four in Phoenix this weekend, NC State (31-6) has been upset-minded all season.

The Wolfpack were picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll and weren’t ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll to start the season.

While unranked, the Wolfpack beat then-No. 2 UConn by 11 points on Nov. 12 to get on the national radar. Along the way, Wes Moore’s team beat Colorado, Louisville and Notre Dame. In the Portland 4 Regional, they notched double-digit victories over No. 2 Stanford and No. 1 Texas to advance to their first Final Four since 1998 — just the second in program history and the first under Moore.

“We feel kind of like the party crashers,” Moore said. “I don’t know that we got an invitation to this thing, but we’re here. So it’s exciting.”

South Carolina and NC State both have nine wins this season against AP Top 25 opponents, tied for the most in the nation.

The Gamecocks enter their sixth Final Four under Staley with the nation’s top defense, ranking first in field-goal percentage allowed (32.1) and points allowed per play (0.65). At the center of that defense is Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 WNBA prospect who averages 14.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.

“We need to shoot the ball well,” Moore said. “We need to hit some 3s, loosen that defense up a little and widen the defense out. The better you shoot the 3, the bigger those gaps get in the defense. We need to do that.”

South Carolina’s top concern is stopping Aziaha James, who is averaging 24.2 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and is shooting 57.1 percent from 3-point land to help carry the Wolfpack to this point.

The Gamecocks will also have to contend with a familiar face in Saniya River, a junior guard who was a freshman reserve on South Carolina’s 2022 national championship team before she transferred to NC State. She averages 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists this season for the Wolfpack.

“It’s unfortunate that her talents aren’t on display in a Gamecock uniform, but the most important thing, her talents will be on display at a Final Four,” Staley said of Rivers. “I do think her experience with us will help her navigate through that space because she’s the only one on (NC State) that’s played at this level and really understands what it takes to win.”

For NC State, South Carolina’s depth could be an obstacle.

The Gamecocks have nine players who play at least 15 minutes and score at least six points per game. That number of quality bodies allows the Gamecocks to play aggressively on both ends of the floor.

NC State last met South Carolina in 2021, the season opener for both teams in Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum, and the Gamecocks left with a nine-point win.

A rematch of this meeting is already set. NC State and South Carolina will meet in November in the 2024 Ally Tipoff in Charlotte, N.C.

–Mitchell Northam, Field Level Media

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