South Carolina beats Stanford to reach national title game
(TSX / STATS) -- DALLAS, Texas -- South Carolina took command in the second half versus Stanford, and the Gamecocks reached the national championship game for the first time in school history.
South Carolina dug out of a nine-point hole at halftime with a momentum-shifting third quarter and went on to a 62-53 victory in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Friday night at the American Airlines Center.
In doing so, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley earned her first win against Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. The Cardinal coach owned a 5-0 record in coaching matchups with Staley going into the contest.
Staley, who also played for VanDerveer on the gold-medal-winning national team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, spoke after the game about her relationship with the Stanford coach.
But it was clear that Staley was happy to finally notch a win against VanDerveer.
"They throw up statistics on the television screen like 0-for-5 coaching against her and you think at some point the law of averages will play out," Staley said with a smile. "Once the game started I didn't really look at it as Tara VanDerveer."
Gamecocks guard Allisha Gray scored 18 points and forward A'ja Wilson finished with 13 points and 19 rebounds to propel South Carolina.
The Gamecocks (32-4) advance to Sunday's national championship game against Mississippi State, which upset Connecticut in the other semifinal. South Carolina finished a game ahead of Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference standings and won both games against the Bulldogs this season.
Forwards Erica McCall and Alanna Smith each had double-doubles for Stanford (32-6). McCall finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds and Smith had 14 points and 12 boards.
But South Carolina held Stanford to 30 percent shooting and 24 points in the second half.
South Carolina erased Stanford's nine-point halftime lead when the Gamecocks went on a 19-4 run that took up most of the third quarter.
Gray scored six points during the third-quarter run. Guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore hit a 3-pointer from the left corner that gave South Carolina a 35-33 lead, the Gamecocks first of the second half with 3:31 left in the quarter.
"We just needed to play to our tempo and start pushing tempo and once we did that we got on our run," Gray said.
South Carolina extended its edge to six points when Cuevas-Moore hit a jumper to cap the run with 1:44 left in the third quarter.
Stanford shot just 19 percent in the third quarter, but the Cardinal still pulled within one possession of the Gamecocks with 2:08 left in the fourth quarter.
Smith hit a 3-pointer to cut South Carolina's lead to 53-50, but Stanford couldn't get any closer.
"It was rough, frustrating, but my teammates talked the whole time," McCall said. "We kept shooting, unfortunately they didn't go in. We battled back in the fourth quarter and I'm proud of how we battled even though our shots didn't go in."
Both teams struggled to find their shooting rhythm in the first quarter as Stanford shot 35.7 percent and South Carolina was a shade worse at 35.3. But the Gamecocks still led 14-12 after the first 10 minutes.
Then Stanford took the momentum to start the second quarter.
The Cardinal used an 11-1 run to take an eight-point lead with 4:32 left before halftime. Guard Brittany McPhee hit a 3-pointer, guard Marta Sniezek got ahead of the Gamecocks' defense for a fast break layup and McCall hit a jumper to fuel the surge.
However, Stanford had a scary moment before the key second-quarter run was finished. Guard Karlie Samuelson appeared to roll her right ankle on a drive to the basket and went to the floor. Samuelson could not immediately put weight on her right leg and had to be carried off the floor by teammates.
Samuelson came out of the halftime locker room walking and appeared ready to play in the second half. But she played just 10 minutes in the second half and didn't take a shot.
Samuelson averages 12.8 points, but went scoreless in the national semifinal.
"She couldn't move," VanDerveer said. "We tried. She wanted to play. We wanted her to play. She's really been the glue to our team the whole year. She talks, she makes big shots. If someone had told me before the game she won't score, I'd say 'We're in trouble.'"
After Samuelson's injury, Sniezek hit a jumper to give the Cardinal a 23-15 lead.
Wilson made a layup with 4:07 to go in the second quarter to break the Gamecocks' six-minute drought without a field goal.
Still, Stanford held South Carolina to six points in the second quarter as the Cardinal took a 29-20 lead to the break.
"I just wanted to get our kids to the locker room at halftime because I knew no matter how many points that we were down, we could utilize our speed to get back in the play," Staley said.
NOTES: Stanford entered the game with a 5-0 record against South Carolina. The Cardinal and Gamecocks met once before in the NCAA Tournament, with Stanford claiming a 60-76 victory in the Sweet 16 in 2012 in Fresno, Calif. ... South Carolina guard Kaela Davis came into the national semifinal game averaging 19.3 points in the Gamecocks' four NCAA Tournament games this season, more than seven points higher than her scoring average through the regular season and SEC tournament. ... Stanford is 4-9 in its 13 national semifinal appearances.
Updated April 1, 2017