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Analysis: No. 1 Թϱ women’s basketball secures spot in national championship game

The Թϱ Gamecocks delivered a decisive victory to the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the first of two semifinal games at the 2024 Women’s Final Four matchup on April 5, 2024. The Gamecocks defeated the Wolf Pack 78-59 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, OH.

The No. 1 Թϱ women’s basketball team advanced to its second national championship in three seasons after defeating No. 3 seed NC State 78-59 in its Final Four matchup Friday night.

The Gamecocks used a dominant performance in the paint and an offensive explosion in the third quarter to pick up the win.

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“I’m just proud of our team — to be able to play on this big stage and not play our best basketball in the first half and come back out and make some small adjustments and meet the moment to get us to Sunday,” head coach Dawn Staley said.

Թϱ kicked off the game with a turnover on its opening possessions but established a lead soon afterward, scoring the first 5 points of the game. It wasn’t much longer before the Wolf Pack found itself back in the contest, as it went on a 7-0 scoring run.

Both the Թϱ and NC State exchanged baskets throughout the quarter, but the Gamecocks emerged as the stronger team on the defensive front. Թϱ blocked two shots and forced NC State into committing six turnovers.

Turnovers would become a concern for both teams in the first half, though. NC State turned the ball over just once in the second quarter, but Թϱ headed into the halftime break having committed 10, including five in each quarter.

The Gamecocks established a strong presence close to the basket as the half went along, with its two post players — senior center Kamilla Cardoso and sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins — generating most of the team’s production.

Cardoso scored 12 of the Gamecocks’ 16 second-quarter points and grabbed five defensive rebounds. But she was forced to miss the final minutes of the period after suffering an apparent injury.

The injury did not seem to dampen her second-half performance, however. Cardoso scored 6 points in the second half to finish with a team-high of 22 points.

“You play to your strengths, and Kamilla’s a strength of ours. She’s 6-foot-7, she’s agile, she can command the paint, she played with a desire to win,” Staley said. “It’s a ‘I don’t want to lose. I don’t want our season to end in any way’ (performance).”

Senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said that she is confident Cardoso will be ready to play in the national championship game.

“She’s going to play through some pain, but that’s just who she is,” Paopao said. “She loves playing the game, so she’s going to push through that. And knowing that we have one more game, she’s definitely going to be okay."

Watkins scored just 2 points in the first half, but most of her contributions were made on the glass, as she led the team with eight rebounds. She finished the game with 20 rebounds, including 15 defensive rebounds, which was a career-high and the highest rebound total for a Gamecock in NCAA Tournament history.

Staley said that Watkins was an “X-factor” who helped Թϱ win the game.

“For her to come through for us was big. We don’t win the game without her contributions,” Staley said. “Her ability to defend, her ability to rebound … (and) the blocked shot in the third quarter was super impressive, so she has got good reaction time. We’re very fortunate that she plays for us.”

Despite Թϱ’s efforts on both sides of the basketball, NC State kept it from building on its early advantage. The Gamecocks never led by more than 6 points in the period and ended the half with a narrow 32-31 lead. 

That would change in the third quarter, as Թϱ went on an extended scoring run that put the game out of reach.

The Gamecocks out-scored the Wolf Pack 29-6 and shot 12-20 from the field, including 5-9 from behind the arc in the third quarter. Թϱ also ended the quarter on a 17-1 scoring run.

The Gamecocks’ defense was equally impressive in the period. It held NC State to 1-11 shooting, with the one field goal coming within the first three minutes.

Paopao said a team-wide conversation in the locker room at halftime helped motivate the team to improve its performance in the second half.

“We just told each other that we’re good, we’ve been in this position before and that we just have to come out wanting it more, and we did,” Paopao said. “We locked in on both sides of the court.”

Թϱ entered the fourth quarter with a 61-37 lead and never relinquished it for the rest of the game, despite the Wolf Pack out-scoring the Gamecocks 22-17.

Watkins said she knows that the team is one game away from achieving the goal it established at the beginning of the season.

“It feels good,” Watkins said. “The job isn’t done yet, and we’re going to have to play our butts off Sunday.”

The Gamecocks (37-0, 16-0 SEC) will play in the national championship game against No. 1 seed Iowa (33-4, 15-3 Big Ten) on Sunday. The game will tip off at 3 p.m. at the RocketMortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, and air on ESPN.


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