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South Carolina beats Stanford to advance to title game

Doniyah Cliney drives into the key. Photo by Robert Franklin.
Doniyah Cliney drives into the key. Photo by Robert Franklin.
Doniyah Cliney drives into the key. Photo by Robert Franklin.

Dallas – South Carolina shook off a slow second quarter Friday to beat Stanford, 62-53, to advance to the National Championship game.

Allisha Gray led the top-seeded Gamecocks with 18 points, while A’ja Wilson had 13 points and 10 rebounds in a game where South Carolina coach Dawn Staley defeated her mentor, Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer.

The Gamecocks’ shooting faltered in the second period, as they missed seven consecutive shots and saw a 29-20 Stanford lead at halftime. South Carolina opened the third period on a scoring run, and a three-point shot by Bianca Cuevas-Moore gave them their first lead of the half. They never trailed again.

Erica McCall had 14 points and 14 rebounds for the Cardinal, and Alanna Smith came off the bench for 14 points and 12 rebounds.

It is the first trip to the title game for South Carolina, after a hard-fought Tournament that began with losing starting center Alaina Coates to injury. Wilson said the way the team has come together has been exceptional.

“Oh, I can’t even put into words the feeling that I have right now. This is a very special team,” Wilson said. “I feel like we’ve earned this spot that we’re in now. We know that we’re not done. But just the feeling of just making history at your school is just something really special. Especially with the game of women’s basketball, we’re kind of putting South Carolina on the map right now.  It’s just a great feeling for us.”

A’ja Wilson tries to pass over Erica McCall. Photo by Robert Franklin.

Staley, who played for VanDerveer on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, beat her friend and mentor on the biggest stage in basketball for the first time. Staley said she separates their friendship from competition.

“She’s been one of my biggest supporters since I’ve been in coaching,” Staley said. “She’s what’s right for women’s basketball. She wants younger coaches to have success in this league. I can’t thank her enough.”

“But then you start thinking about, you know, they throw up statistics on the television screen, 0-5 coaching against her.  You think at some point the law of averages should play out at some point (smiling).”

“But once the game started, I didn’t really look at it as Tara VanDerveer.  We tell our players, our opponents are nameless and faceless.  We need to go out there. Because if you start playing the name, you start playing the face, you start playing the tradition, I think it overwhelms you.”

Brittany McPhee tries to beat the defense. Photo by Robert Franklin.

Karlie Samuelson only played 25 minutes and didn’t score for Stanford after rolling her ankle in the first half. VanDerveer said it hurt the team.

“I don’t think we got to the free-throw line, what, twice, if that, in the second half,” VanDerveer said. “We turned it over too much. We just never could get it.  When we had a nine-point lead, they got back right in.”

“For us, honestly, we just really struggled without our glue out there, Karlie, twisting her ankle. Really kind of gave us a tough time. For Karlie not to score….we need her scoring.”

The Gamecocks will battle SEC rival Mississippi State for the National Championship – a team they have already beat twice this year. The game will be 5 p.m. CT April 2 on ESPN.

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