DALLAS – In the week since South Carolina earned its second trip to the Final Four in three years, junior forward A’ja Wilson has had a message for her teammates.
Savor this, she’d say. Don’t take this experience for granted. And definitely, don’t lose in the semifinal.
The Gamecocks must have listened.
South Carolina rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat Stanford 62-53 Friday night in the first national semifinal behind a 13-point, 19-rebound performance from Wilson. South Carolina will play Mississippi State, who stunned UConn in overtime to get to the the national title game Sunday night.
“This is a really special team. We earned this spot we’re in now,” Wilson said.
Guard Allisha Gray led South Carolina scorers with 18 points.
The Gamecocks advance to their first-ever championship game after surviving a dreadful second quarter, as South Carolina missed seven consecutive shots and watched a two-point lead turn into a 29-20 deficit by halftime. South Carolina hit just 26 % of its shots in the first half.
But South Carolina was ready for a run of its own after halftime, turning up the tempo on offense as the Gamecocks tried to outrun a Stanford team that wanted to be patient. South Carolina also increased its defensive intensity, helping force Stanford into a scoring drought of more than five minutes.
A three-pointer by guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore with 3:31 remaining in the third quarter gave the Gamecocks their first lead of the second half, and South Carolina never trailed again.
“We knew we could utilize our speed to get back in the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said.
Wilson grabbed 11 of her 19 rebounds in the second half as she fought through what was a frustrating night offensively. Wilson was frequently double- and triple-teamed by Stanford defenders under the basket.
“She’s come a long way in terms of handling physicality. She didn’t handle the double and triple teams well tonight, but she found a way to impact the game,” Staley said.
South Carolina forced 16 turnovers, nine of them in the second half, in a defensive performance that was typical for a Gamecocks team known for their aggression and physicality. That defense will be especially challenged in the title game against either UConn or Mississippi State, as both teams have far more explosive scorers than Stanford.
The Cardinal had two players in double figures, Erica McCall and Alanna Smith both with 14, but struggled offensively after forward Karlie Samuelson suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter. Samuelson, who averages 13 points per game, was able to return in the second half, but she was clearly hobbled, and was held scoreless.
“We need her scoring,” Stanford coach VanDerveer said. “Without Karlie, we really struggled. She couldn’t move. We tried, she tried. She wanted to play. But psychologically and physically, it was a challenge.”
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