Throughout the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, famed South Carolina coach Dawn Staley called out a message of consistency and pressure for her players: Keep the thing.
And, as often happens with Staley and her players, they were listening.
South Carolina, the nation’s top-ranked women’s basketball team, will get another chance to win the championship after defeating fellow top-ranked Louisville, 72-59, at Target Arena in Minneapolis on Friday night. Gamecocks will play the winner of a UConn vs. Stanford is played on Friday nights in the same arena.
Louisville tried and again tried to threaten South Carolina, using its speed and wealth of diverse talent to leave the Gamecocks confused at times. Teams often found themselves in a tangled mess on the field as they fought for the ball. But the cardinal couldn’t break through the defensive wall of South Carolina, who blocked, stole and danced around the Louisville players with the confidence of a team that has only lost twice this season.
Even double and triple teams couldn’t stop the Gamecocks from making their way to the basket.
Gamecocks Lost to Stanford by one point in Final Four in 2021 And they’ve been hungry for a win back and a second National title since 2017. South Carolina ranked first in an Associated Press poll all season and one of their losses was a shock defeat to Kentucky at the bell in the Southeast Conference Championship. But her defensive power has already decimated the nation’s best opposition earlier this season – including Connecticut and Stanford.
“Is there an advantage? No, it’s not an advantage? No, it’s not an advantage?” Staley said after the game. “When you play for a national championship, it is the team that can get used to their habits quickly and stay here.”
This race was a great turn of events from last year, especially for Aliyah Boston, the 6-foot-5 Gamecocks forward, who missed a last-second shot at last year’s Final Four that could have sent South Carolina into the championship game. When asked last weekend if she ever brings back any of those moments to herself, her response was an emphatic no. “I’ve quit that since last season and we’ve continued,” she said.
She has moved. The 20-year-old Boston used her relentless power around the basket to lead South Carolina with 23 points and 18 rebounds, securing her 29th double this season and a one-season rebounding record for South Carolina.
“We knew we were going to get tested and that was the hump we needed to get over,” Boston said after the game.
But she didn’t carry her team alone. The Gamecocks became dependent on a primary support system for rebounding skills from Victaria Saxton, who scored 10, low and wide defense from Brea Beal, who scored 12, and offensive agility from Zia Cooke, who scored 10, and Destanni Henderson, who scored 11.
South Carolina entered the game with Staley and Boston having just received the Naismith Coach and Player of the Year awards. Staley, a Hall of Fame player and Olympic gold medalist as both player and coach, began building the South Carolina women’s basketball program in 2008.
Gamecocks made 10 consecutive NCAA Championship games under Staley, not including the 2020 tournament that was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Four of those appearances were in the Final Four.
The Gamecocks opened with an early lead but faltered a bit in the second quarter as Louisville forward Emily Engstler managed to break through the Gamecocks defense, three straight runs that gave the Cardinal a momentary lead before South Carolina recovered before the break.
Engstler went on to score, and finished the match with 18 points and 9 rebounds before losing late. The loss means the end of Engstler’s career, but he will likely be selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft next month.
When South Carolina regained the lead, it did so quickly and decisively. The 5-foot-7, South Carolina player Healy Van Leyth smashed the Louisville goalkeeper and top scorer for a team that scored just two points in the first half. She scored at least 20 points in her four previous championship games, but finished with 9 points on Friday night.
“Bria is an elite defender,” Staley said. “She is very modest.”
South Carolina was able to extend its lead to 9 points as the final quarter of the game approached, thanks to the persistent attack and the Cardinals’ increasingly frustrated defense.
When Engstler miscalculated and the Cardinals failed to convert turnovers and rebounds into points, South Carolina was able to clear the bench and rest their starters. Gamecocks fans started standing up and their towels started rolling.
It wasn’t a clean win, but it was a decisive one. South Carolina and Louisville scored 15 spins each by the end of the game.
“We’ve never been able to take them away because of their fighting ability, their competitiveness, their ability to stay there, defend, score and shoot us,” Staley said.
Henderson and her colleagues acknowledged that they “failed” last year, but plan to “enjoy the moment,” she said, at least for now. “We are not finished yet. We still have unfinished business.”
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