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Preview: Թϱ women’s basketball heads into Final Four with title-winning aspirations

<p>Junior guard Bree Hall follows through after a shot attempt at practice in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on April 4, 2024. This marked the players’ last practice before their Final Four game against NC State.</p>
Junior guard Bree Hall follows through after a shot attempt at practice in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on April 4, 2024. This marked the players’ last practice before their Final Four game against NC State.

The No. 1 seed Թϱ women’s basketball team will kick off its trip to the 2024 Final Four in Cleveland, Ohio when it takes on No. 3 seed North Carolina State Friday night.

The Gamecocks are heading into the final stage of this year’s NCAA Tournament with their same approach, despite falling short of the national title game last season.

“It’s kind of hard to apply what happened last year to this team. It’s just a completely different team … It’s not like we have to have a conversation with anybody,” junior guard Bree Hall said. “I feel like everybody has the same goal, and I think we’re ready.”

Թϱ enters its semifinal matchup against the Wolf Pack with a perfect 36-0 record and one of the most prolific offenses in the country, which is averaging 85.6 points per game. Freshman guard Tessa Johnson said the team’s success on offense stems from individual players distributing the basketball and sharing scoring opportunities.

“We have great players who are willing to share the ball,” Johnson said. “They’re willing to look for their teammates and find the right shot and the best shot possible.”

The Gamecocks have made 49.2% of its field goal attempts this season, a mark that ranks fourth amongst all Division I programs this season. The team did not shoot as efficiently in its last contest, however, as it finished its 70-58 victory over No. 3 seed Oregon State with a 33.3% field goal percentage, including 20% on 3-point shots.

Junior forward Sania Feagin said she is confident that those shooting woes will not carry into Friday’s game.

“We’re a good shooting percentage. I mean, some days, you have off days, and I just feel like that was an off day for us,” Feagin said. “We have to come ready and prepare for it and everything.”

Թϱ’s defense has proven to be equally potent, ranking first amongst Power 5 programs in points allowed (56.0) and blocks (7.9) per game. Head coach Dawn Staley has made defense a focal point of the team’s preparations for the Final Four, sophomore guard Raven Johnson said.

“She emphasizes defense so much that she always says, ‘Defenses wins championship games, not the offenses.’ ... You can not have a good offensive night, but if you can stop your opponent from scoring, I mean, what can you say?” Raven Johnson said. “I know that in practice today, we were doing a lot of defensive things for our opponent tomorrow.”

On Friday, the Gamecocks will meet a battle-tested NC State squad that has taken down two higher-seeded opponents — No. 2 seed Stanford and No. 1 seed Texas — enroute to the Final Four. 

One player who has contributed to the Wolf Pack’s success is junior guard Saniya Rivers, who spent her freshman season at Թϱ. Rivers is averaging 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game and was named to the All-ACC First Team in March.

Hall, who played with Rivers when the two were both freshmen, said she has seen Rivers’ game “grow a lot” since she joined the Wolf Pack.

“She's a really good point guard,” Hall said. “She can really handle the ball really well. Her defense is good. I think I've seen a lot of improvement in her game.”

Rivers isn’t the only Gamecock with ties to an opposing player. Raven Johnson said she and senior center Kamilla Cardoso played AAU basketball with senior guard Madison Hayes, who is one of five NC State players averaging 10 or more points per game.

Johnson said she is impressed by the Wolf Pack’s guard play, with much of its production coming from Rivers, Hayes and junior guard Aziaha James.

“(Hayes) is an X-factor for the team. She does the little things, she’s a hustle player (and) she rebounds. (James is) a really good player, and I think she hit big shots for them,” Johnson said. “And Saniya Rivers … She developed a lot just coming from here to there.”

For Staley, every team remaining in the tournament is on equal footing, as they are all within reach of the national championship. She, like Hall, said her goal is for Թϱ to emerge as the team that wins it all.

“Competitive juices are flowing, (and) you can see the finish line ... For us, we can see it. And it’s not disrespecting the process and not disrespecting our opponent, but once you get here, they (opposing teams) can see it,” Staley said. “I want to win.”

Թϱ and NC State are set to tip off at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.


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