Sports Journalism Blog

By Hanna Barton | @hannabarton00

Sports Capital Journalism Program

CLEVELAND — The season of perfection continues for South Carolina (37-0) as it punched its ticket to a third national championship game and became the first team since the 2016 UConn Huskies to enter the title game with an undefeated record.  The Gamecocks topped the NC State Wolfpack 78-59 Friday night in the first Final Four semifinal matchup with an explosive third quarter and dominant inside play by senior Kamilla Cardoso.

Cardoso — the only player on their current roster who scored points the last time South Carolina faced NC State in 2021– led the Gamecocks with 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Sophomore Ashlyn Watkins put on a defensive show with a career-high 20 rebounds, including 12 in the second half, while senior Te-Hina Paopao and junior Raven Johnson also posted double figures, with 10 and 13, respectively.

As she’s done all season, coach Dawn Staley maximized the depth of her bench throughout the game. Nine Gamecocks logged double-digit minutes, with eight getting points on the board.

“We just have 11 players that can step up and bring something to the table,” said Cardoso.

The last two times the Gamecocks played in national championship games, 2017 and 2022, they won national titles.  This year, they will face the force that kept them out of last year’s national championship game when they play Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes for the title on Sunday.

NC State (31-7) was led by junior Aziaha James, with 20 points, and graduate student River Baldwin scored 12 points and nine rebounds. Despite the loss, the Wolfpack still recorded their second 30-win season in program history and are one of eight teams in NCAA history to reach the Final Four after starting the season unranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

“We’ve had an unbelievable season,” said NC State Head Coach Wes Moore. “I’m proud of these young ladies, the run we’ve been on. This stinks to end it this way. But I’m sure after we’ve had a little bit of time away from it and can reflect, we have a lot to be proud of.”

The first half of the game saw several lead changes due to multiple turnovers from both teams – South Carolina had 10 and the Wolfpack had seven. While South Carolina secured the early lead, a 3-point jumper by James set off the first of four lead changes in the first half of play.

The Wolfpack leads came at the beginning of both the first and second quarters, followed by minutes-long scoring droughts that allowed South Carolina to regain control. NC State’s spark came in a 7-2 run in the last two minutes of the second quarter after Cardoso injured her right knee and went to the locker room where she remained until the second half.  NC State was within one point of South Carolina, 32-31 at the half.

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

South Carolina took control of the game in the third quarter, outscoring NC State 29-6. The Gamecocks had a 17-1 run in the final seven minutes of that quarter, with the single Wolfpack point coming from a free throw by Baldwin.

“The first half was very competitive,” said James. “I felt like in the third quarter we didn’t come out in the locker room how we were supposed to come out in the locker room. I feel like we could have fought harder. I feel like we hung our heads and got into our heads mentally.”

South Carolina’s third quarter surge was capped off by a 3-pointer in the final second by Bree Hall. The shot by the Ohio native was followed by chest bumps from the bench and the South Carolina fans erupted.

“It’s a lot of excitement, a lot of joy, a lot of cheerfulness,” said Hall. “Just being able to be back here in my home state, playing in front of my people.”

Despite being outscored by NC State 22-17 in the fourth quarter, the lead the Gamecocks established before the final 10 minutes helped to secure their victory.

“I’m just proud of our team,” said Staley. “To be able to play on this big stage. To 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.”