GREENVILLE, S.C. — The script has become routine for South Carolina in this year’s N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament. In the first half, South Carolina, the reigning champion, often looks surprisingly vulnerable, perhaps on the verge of its first loss this season, primed to be on the wrong side of a monumental upset in a March that has been filled with them.
But in the second half, the Gamecocks wear teams down, and remind everyone why they are the top seed and an odds-on favorite to repeat as champions.
The Gamecocks followed that path again on Monday night in front of a raucous crowd as they beat second-seeded Maryland, 86-75, to advance to their third straight Final Four. Aliyah Boston led the Gamecocks with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, recording her ninth double-double in an N.C.A.A. tournament.
On Friday in Dallas, South Carolina will play No. 2 seed Iowa, which is led by the scoring and passing phenom Caitlin Clark.
“I know what it feels like to lose,” South Carolina guard Brea Beal said. “I know what it feels like to be sent home. So I mean, every game that we played this season, we played, you know, with that feeling on our mind, on our chest and really going into any game we play. We don’t want that.”
The South Carolina players gathered at midcourt and dumped a Powerade cooler filled with confetti on Coach Dawn Staley. Each player, trainer and assistant coach cut down pieces of the net, leaving most of it for Staley, who climbed the ladder last and placed the remainder of the net around her neck. She turned to each side of the crowd slowly, as the fans roared like she was a rock star at a concert.
“I just like to acknowledge our fans, you know, if they wanted to take a picture from way in the stands,” Staley said.
Many of South Carolina’s opponents deploy a zone defense, with their guards sagging below the free-throw line to help defend its massive forwards. Maryland, however, opted for a different approach.
The Terrapins used a full-court press, which at first seemed like a poor decision but quickly helped Maryland to force errant passes and rush South Carolina’s offense. Maryland led by 6 after the first quarter, with South Carolina and Staley looking frustrated and unlike the dominant team they had been all year.
But South Carolina’s physicality got Maryland’s stars into foul trouble. Diamond Miller and the sturdy point guard Shyanne Sellers sat on the bench for most of the first half with two fouls. While those two were out of the game, Maryland dropped back into a zone defense, and South Carolina got more comfortable. Zia Cooke erupted for 9 points in the second quarter, and South Carolina had turned the game around to lead by 8 at halftime.
The challenge with stopping South Carolina, as Maryland learned on Monday, is its depth. Most championship teams play their stars for nearly the entire game at this point of the season, using reserves primarily to spell starters who get into foul trouble.
But South Carolina regularly swaps almost its entire starting lineup with players who are nearly as good and who also often have a size advantage over their opponents. Take, for example, Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 center who was the Atlantic Coast Conference freshman of the year at Syracuse before transferring to South Carolina two seasons ago and has a reserve role for the Gamecocks.
“The waves that they just send at you from the bench and they wear you out with that physicality and with their size,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said. She added: “Clearly you saw that impacted us with our foul trouble.”
Cardoso ensures that there isn’t much of a drop-off from Boston defensively, and when they are in the game at the same time, it’s usually a block party.
Raven Johnson, a second-year guard who was the No. 2 player in her high school class, similarly comes off the bench behind guards Cooke and Kierra Fletcher.
“Anyone on our bench could start on any top team,” Boston said after the team’s round-of-16 win over U.C.L.A. “But you know everybody decided to come to play for Coach Staley under this program, and we use it to our advantage.”
That depth was the difference on Monday. Miller and Boston are projected to be the top two picks in this year’s W.N.B.A. draft, but Miller’s supporting cast pales in comparison. Miller tried to ignite her team with aggressive drives and defense, but couldn’t close the deficit. She led all scorers with 24 points, in likely her last game at Maryland.
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