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Analysis: No. 1 Թϱ women's basketball bench leads way to Sweet Sixteen in 88-41 win over North Carolina

<p>Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley shoots a 3-pointer in South Carolina's game against the University of North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament on March 24, 2024, at Colonial Life Arena. Fulwiley scored 20 points in the Gamecocks’ 88-41 win over the Tar Heels.</p>
Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley shoots a 3-pointer in Թϱ's game against the University of North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament on March 24, 2024, at Colonial Life Arena. Fulwiley scored 20 points in the Gamecocks’ 88-41 win over the Tar Heels.

The Թϱ women's basketball team put on a dominant performance Sunday with a 47-point win over the North Carolina Tar Heels to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. 

Թϱ was relentless in the first half, shutting North Carolina down with a tough defensive display. The Gamecocks forced six turnovers with three blocks and five steals, limiting the Tar Heels to a mere 8 points in the first quarter. 

The defense translated into points for Թϱ after big plays from several bench players. By the end of the first quarter, the bench accounted for 17 of the team's 28 points, including back-to-back threes from freshman guard Tessa Johnson. 

"I have the utmost confidence in our bench," head coach Dawn Staley said. "We've put them in a position to play all season long, so what they're doing right now is not a surprise. It was built that way from the very beginning, and now they're seeing just some of their patience pay off in a big way." 

Թϱ carried its defensive display well into the second quarter, holding North Carolina to 3-14 on field goals and just 11 points. The Tar Heels didn’t have an answer for its offense either. The Gamecocks commanded the lead and ran with it, leading by as many as 42 points. 

The baskets continued for the Gamecocks in the second quarter, as it shot 80% from beyond the arc and 59.4% on field goals. The young players led the pack, with Johnson and freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley getting 11 points apiece and sophomore forward Chloe Kitts following behind them with 10. 

By the half, the Gamecocks forged a different story from when the two teams met earlier in the season. In November, it was a one-possession game after a physical first half. This time, Թϱ had no trouble taking a 37-point lead into halftime.

"I feel like we just came out there being very aggressive, just matching their energy," Fulwiley said. "Last time, I feel like they caught us a little off guard with their aggressiveness, and I feel like today we did a great job just matching that energy on both sides of the basketball for the whole four quarters, so we did great."

But North Carolina came out of the locker room looking a little more spirited. It matched the Gamecocks' scoring in the third quarter, putting up 15 points — its highest quarter total yet. The Tar Heels sharpened its offense, limited turnovers and restricted Gamecock scoring. 

The Tar Heels' surge didn’t last long, however. The Gamecocks got right back to its game plan in the fourth, making it the Tar Heels' least-productive quarter with just 7 points. Fulwiley’s versatility helped put Թϱ back on track, as she made 4 points, four rebounds, one block and one steal. 

"(Fulwiley) performs the way she does. She's not afraid of the moment no matter if she's playing well or not," Staley said. "She doesn't like to look bad, but she's unafraid to make mistakes, and for that, we are honored that she chose to make the mistakes and correct them on Gamecock ground."

It was an immense display of depth for the Gamecocks. By the end of the game, Թϱ saw five players score in double digits — the most of which came from Fulwiley, with 20. The bench also contributed over half of Թϱ’s points. 

"Every single one of our players made an impact coming into the game," Staley said. "We needed a performance like this, and hopefully, playing this good of basketball can be contagious throughout the rest of the way. I thought we did a great job of just being aggressive on both sides of the basketball, just locking in to make sure that this wouldn't be our last game."

The team's offensive dominance was fueled by opportunities created by the defense. The Gamecocks finished the game with 54 rebounds, shutting down any hope from the Tar Heels to respond to its scoring runs. 

"One of our keys to the game was boxing out and rebounding," Johnson said. "And comparing to last game, they got a lot of second chances, so we had to, again, emphasize it and do our job." 

With the win, the Gamecocks advance to its 10th consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance and will play in the Albany 1 Region. It will take on the winner of Oklahoma and Indiana's matchup on Friday, March 29. The time is yet to be determined. 


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