South Carolina's unbeaten run rolls on to Final Four

Mar. 31—ALBANY, N.Y. — South Carolina was heavily tested in the fourth quarter for the second straight NCAA Tournament game Sunday, and the No. 1 overall seed again proved up to the challenge.

The Gamecocks' unbeaten season will extend to the Final Four after a 70-58 victory against third-seeded Oregon State at MVP Arena.

The win came behind a new cast of five starters after South Carolina lost in the national semifinals a year ago as the favorite to win the national championship.

"Just proud of our team and for them believing in themselves," Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. "They created a certain level of chemistry and culture, and they stuck with it, and then they allowed us to coach them. They trusted us to coach them, even when it didn't feel good to them personally at different times of the season.

"Then, overall, I just think that — I think God has a funny way of dealing with people, and I'm one of his, and for us to lose the way we lost last year and for him to bring us to this point today makes me believe a little bit deeper. The strength is my faith in who he is because — I don't know what the Bible verse is, but I know that when you're at your worst and your weakest moments, he's at his best.

"And he started working on that the day that buzzer sounded last year during this time."

On Sunday, the hero was Tessa Johnson.

The freshman guard led South Carolina (36-0) with 15 points off the bench, and her biggest moments came when it mattered most.

With the Gamecocks nursing a four-point lead, Johnson drove the lane for a traditional three-point play with 3:29 remaining.

After the teams went scoreless for nearly the next three minutes, Johnson broke the stalemate with a pair of free throws that put South Carolina up 65-58 and all but sealed the victory.

She added the final points of the contest with another pair from the free-throw line and scored seven of the Gamecocks' final eight points overall.

"The thought process going through my head was my shots weren't falling as I wanted, so I needed to attack," Johnson said.

The Beavers (27-8) battled foul trouble in the first half with bigs Raegan Beers and Timea Gardiner each picking up their third personal foul in the second quarter.

But South Carolina led just 37-33 at intermission.

Oregon State trailed 43-41 when Beers scored in the lane with 6:07 remaining in the third quarter. Then the Gamecocks made what proved to be the game-deciding run.

The 12-0 surge began with a 3-pointer by Raven Johnson — who also made a crucial late trifecta against Indiana on Friday — and another by Tessa Johnson, assisted by Raven Johnson.

Tessa Johnson's jumper with 3:01 to play put South Carolina ahead by double digits for the first time, and Sonia Feagin made it 10 straight points with a layup in transition off a feed from Te-Hina Paopao.

When Feagin scored again on a tip in with 1:50 left in the period, the Gamecocks had their biggest lead at 55-41.

"For this particular year, we've responded, and it produced wins," Staley said. "It's not always like that. ... They're just trying to figure it out, and they want to play for each other. They want to not disappoint each other. They hold each other accountable."

The Beavers regained some footing and cut the deficit to 58-46 heading into the final period.

But South Carolina again found some difficulty in putting an opponent away down the stretch.

Fourth-seeded Indiana trimmed a 22-point third-quarter deficit down to two points in Friday's regional semifinal.

Oregon State didn't get quite that close, But the deficit was just 62-58 when freshman guard Donovyn Hunter made a lay-up with 3:53 to play.

Tessa Johnson took over from there.

"Just want to say congratulations to Oregon State," Staley said. "Really tough basketball team. They're young. They're going to be back in this position again, and they're probably going to get over the hump. They're that good on both sides of the basketball.

"We were extremely fortunate and lucky to get out of this region and on to the Final Four. Super proud of our team for the resilience and taking their competitive spirits to another level to secure us another berth to the Final Four."

Beers led the Beavers with 16 points, and Lily Hansford was critical in the fourth-quarter comeback. She finished with 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting from 3-point range.

Gardiner had her second double-double of the weekend with 10 points and 12 rebounds, and Hunter added 10 points and five assists.

"This team, it rivals any team I've ever been a part of," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "What they did this year is not common. It's not normal. We're not supposed to be here. But we are, and the people in the room get it, not surprised by it.

"Y'all got to see it today, a fearless, gritty, tough display of competitive fire and passion and togetherness that is as inspiring as anything."

Regional most outstanding player Kamilla Cardoso scored 12 points and pulled down nine rebounds for the Gamecocks.

Junior guard Bree Hall added 10 points, and sophomore forward Ashlyn Watkins had eight points and 14 rebounds off the bench.

South Carolina shot just 33.3% (26-of-78) overall and was 4-for-20 from 3-point range. But it won the rebounding battle 51-37 and pulled down 22 boards off the offensive glass.

It was just another example of the nation's finest team finding a way to win.

Next up is a battle against North Carolina State in the Final Four on Friday in Cleveland.

"Each time we get an opportunity to knock down some nets to go to the Final Four is really special because you don't know when it's going to be the last time that you'll do it," Staley said. "More times than not, there are players on the team that didn't experience it (before)."