South Carolina escaped a nervy Sweet 16 finish with a familiar formula: “How can you guard us?”

By | March 31, 2024

ALBANY, N.Y. – The Gamecocks survived as they used to thrive. They spread the task over the schedule.

South Carolina didn’t return to one star as it clung to a slim five-point lead that was as large as 22 early in the third quarter of a Sweet 16 matchup with Indiana. In the final 2:03, Kamilla Cardoso finished a layup, Raven Johnson made a clutch 3-pointer, Tessa Johnson added a free throw and Ashlyn Watkins forcefully denied a corner 3 attempt.

Each time Indiana took the lead, another Gamecock answered to lead the No. 1 overall seed to the Elite Eight, 79-75, by their narrowest margin of the season.

“That’s us. That’s what we do,” Watkins told Yahoo Sports. “All season long, in the preseason, during the season and during the tournaments, we always play together. That showed today.”

Indiana head coach Teri Moren said Thursday she prepared for South Carolina as if it had 10 starters. Only three Gamecock players are averaging double figures. Seven average more than eight per match.

The Gamecocks led by 17 after halftime in what appeared to be another runaway, having defeated their first two tournament opponents by a combined 99 points. It was another balanced performance, with nine players seeing at least seven minutes of action and scoring at least two points. When the Hoosiers crowded or sent help on the 6-foot-4 Cardoso, it left open shooters everywhere.

It took a full team effort for South Carolina to pull out a close win over Indiana on Friday, but Kamilla Cardoso (10) stood out from the rest.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It took a full team effort for South Carolina to pull out a close win over Indiana on Friday, but Kamilla Cardoso (10) stood out from the rest. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

“You can’t just cut one player off our team,” Raven Johnson said. “We receive threats from all over the field. We also have threats on the bench. It’s hard to guard our team because we just bring different weapons, and I think when it comes to scouting us, we can shoot from outside, we can dominate in the paint, we have drivers, everything.

“How can you guard us? That’s how I look at it.”

That didn’t sit well with South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley on the other side of the interview table. That 17-point lead, which grew to 22 at the 7:30 mark of the third, evaporated. The Hoosiers pulled back within ten minutes in the final ten minutes and made it a two-point stress-fest with less than a minute on the clock.

“I mean, we gave up a seventeen or twenty point lead,” Staley said, taking a deep breath and looking between them at Bree Hall.

“I guess we were just tired,” Johnson said, earning another Staley look and laughter from Hall, who mumbled something to her.

This is how the Gamecocks play the ball. They are loose – maybe sometimes too loose – but confident. They spread the ball around and rely on the strength of a team that rolls so deep that the waves of defensive pressure and offensive firepower don’t stop. There is no break for an opponent.

“Anyone can go out and play,” SC guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “Anyone can start on this team on any team in the country, but we chose to sacrifice that and be together.”

Cardoso controlled the game most of the time for South Carolina, approaching her career-high of 24 points as a freshman at Syracuse. She finished 10 of 12 for 22 points, one shy of her career-high at South Carolina this season. When Indiana hit its 13th and final 3-pointer at the 2:24 mark to cut the deficit to four, Cardoso answered in the paint on the other end. South Carolina outscored Indiana 42-36 in that area and held fifth-year All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes to 12 points.

Sydney Parrish, who scored a team-high 21 with five 3s for the Hoosiers, hit two free throws and Holmes drove in for two to break up the scoring again. On the ensuing inbounds play, Raven Johnson fed Cardoso inside and pulled Johnson’s defender down. Cardoso immediately passed it back and Johnson drilled a clutch 3 for a more comfortable lead. The play call, she joked, was to “get the ball in the basket.”

“I was open and all I could think was: let it go. I don’t want to lose,” Johnson said. “I’m just going by last year. No one can get away from me this year, and I take that very personally. And I go to the gym every day and do reps and I think that’s where it comes from: the confidence.

In the Final Four loss to Iowa last year, Caitlin Clark didn’t put Johnson on the perimeter because of her struggles from deep. She finished 3-of-6 off the bench, but it fueled the sophomore’s revenge tour. Against Indiana, she hit all three 3s she attempted and went 5-for-7 for 14 points, second-most on the team. The entire team was 8 of 16, driving the 3 to an early lead as a weapon it didn’t possess in last year’s undefeated regular season.

Staley said she yelled “shoot it” when she saw how wide open Johnson was right in front of her.

“Before that shot, I saw Raven’s eyes as he came down the stretch and our lead was closing,” Staley said. “I knew she wouldn’t let us lose. I knew she was going to do something.”

So did freshman guard Tessa Johnson, who made her second free throw with 14 seconds left to push the lead back to four. It would take an error on a 3 for Indiana to tie. When the Hoosiers tried to put Yarden Garzon in the corner for a shot, Watkins shot to the block.

‘Just play defense. That’s it,” Watkins said.

Staley said she wasn’t happy with the shot selection in the second half, when South Carolina had a big lead. She didn’t learn anything new from her team, just what she already knew, she said.

“I have a resilient basketball team that they don’t like to lose,” Staley said. “They were able to play on both sides of the basketball through great play, through sloppy play, through having a lead, building a lead and then making it a one-possession game, that they were able to play. play their way out of it. We are the habits we have created, good and bad.”

Paopao said she hopes the close call “lights a fire under our butts,” as it did after South Carolina nearly lost its undefeated season on the final possession of the SEC semifinal against Tennessee. When told about Staley’s comments about refocusing the team between that tournament and the NCAA first round, she smiled broadly. That time was a lull for the Gamecocks where they didn’t feel like they were playing like themselves and sharing the ball.

“I smile because we have come a long way,” Paopao said. “And to get through that little silence, we had to get through it together. It was hard, but in the end we kept winning and being there for each other. So I really hope that today’s match gets us back in the grip and gets us back to who we are.”

They are the balanced team that wins every night with production up and down the roster.

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