South Carolina tops LSU in SEC title game marred by bench-clearing scuffle, mass ejections

South Carolina beat LSU for the SEC championship Sunday in a title game marred by mass ejections that have implications for the NCAA tournament.

The top-ranked Gamecocks weathered foul trouble from All-SEC center Kamilla Cardoso and then held on after a late-game scuffle for the 79-72 win. LSU finished with five eligible players and South Carolina six after the bench-clearing fracas that projects to leave Cardoso ineligible in the first round of NCAA tournament play.

Cardoso shoves Johnson, benches clear

Things got heated in the final minutes as the scuffle broke out near midcourt. Players traded shoves after Cardoso pushed LSU's Flau'jae Johnson to the court at the end of a play. Johnson previously grabbed the hip of South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley on a turnover, sparking Cardoso's reaction.

Players from both teams left the bench to join the scuffle. A man from the stands jumped over the scorer's table to join the scuffle before being detained by security. ESPN reported that the man was Johnson's brother.

Game officials spent roughly 20 minutes reviewing the incident on a sideline monitor before sorting things out. They called an intentional foul on Johnson, then ejected Cardoso for fighting. They also ejected every player who left the bench.

LSU finished the game with Johnson, Angel Reese, Hailey Van Lith, Mikaylah Williams and Aneesah Morrow. South Carolina finished with Fulwiley, Ashlyn Watkins, Sania Feagin, Bree Hall, Raven Johnson and Te-Hina Paopao. All other players were ejected.

South Carolina led 73-66 at the time of the incident and held on for the win.

Staley, Cardoso apologize postgame

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley addressed the incident in a postgame interview with ESPN.

"I just want to apologize to the basketball community," she said. "You know, when you’re playing a championship game like this, in our league things get heated. No bad intentions. Their emotions got so far ahead of them. Sometimes these things happen.

"I want to apologize for us playing a part in that. That’s not who we are, and that’s not what we’re about. But I’m happy for the players who were able to finish the game and get us another championship."

She also shared an embrace with LSU's Johnson on the postgame sideline.

Staley told reporters that Johnson apologized too her for her role in the incident, a message that Staley wanted to share with the public.

"She's a really good person," Staley said of Johnson. "Things just got escalated."

Cardoso, meanwhile, offered an apology on social media:

"I would like to extend my sincerest apologies for my actions during today’s game," Cardoso wrote. "My behavior was not representative of who I am as a person or the South Carolina program, and I deeply regret any discomfort or inconvenience it may have caused.

"I take full responsibility for my actions and assure you that I am committed to conducting myself with the utmost respect and sportsmanship in the future."

Kim Mulkey critical of Cardoso

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey condemned the 6-7 Cardoso for shoving 5-10 Johnson to the floor.

"No one wants to be a part of that," Mulkey said. "No one wants to see that ugliness.

"But I can tell you this. I wish she would have pushed Angel Reese. Don't push a kid. You're 6-8, don't push somebody that little. Those two girls that were jawing, let them go at it."

After the dust settled, the South Carolina's championship celebration ensued. Players reveled as confetti fell from the rafters before the Gamecocks cut down the nets. Fulwiley was named tournament MVP.

South Carolina players celebrate their SEC championship. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
South Carolina players celebrate their SEC championship. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images) (Eakin Howard via Getty Images)

NCAA rule: Fight deems Cardoso ineligible for next game

Per the NCAA rulebook, Cardoso is not eligible for South Carolina's next game because of the ejection for fighting. South Carolina's next game will be in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Other players who were ejected will be eligible for their next game.

NCAA rulebook language makes clear that players who participate in a fight will be suspended for the team's next game with little recourse for overturning the ruling of a fight:

Art. 10. The first time an individual participates in a fight during the season (including exhibition games), the individual shall be suspended from participating in the team’s next regular-season game (not an exhibition contest), including tournament competition.

Art. 16. After a game, conference offices or the assigning authority may correct an error about who was involved in a fight, but cannot change an official’s ruling that a fight took place or lessen the severity of the penalty. The conference office or assigning authority may make those penalties more severe.

Freshman Fulwiley comes though to keep South Carolina undefeated

South Carolina secured the win against the reigning NCAA champions despite Cardoso watching much of the game from the bench. She entered the second half with two fouls and picked up her third 1:20 into the third quarter. She went to the bench with South Carolina holding a 39-32 lead and didn't return until the start of the fourth. She missed the final 2:08 after being ejected.

LSU shaved just one point off its deficit with Cardoso on the bench in the third as South Carolina entered the fourth quarter with a 59-53 lead. Fulwiley, a freshman guard, sparked the Gamecocks' offense in Cardoso's absence, scoring 10 of her game-high 24 points in the third. Cardoso finished with eight points and six rebounds in 22 minutes.

Morrow led four LSU players in double figures with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Reese added 15 points and 13 rebounds. South Carolina outshot LSU 43.1% to 37.3% from the field and forced 17 Tigers turnovers to overcome a 44-37 rebounding deficit.

Will perfect season end in South Carolina championship?

Like last season, South Carolina enters NCAA tournament play undefeated as the presumptive No. 1 overall seed, a situation that didn't translate to a national title. The Gamecocks fell to Caitlin Clark and Iowa in last year's Final Four for their first and only loss of the season before LSU went on to defeat Iowa for the national championship.

The Gamecocks will now enter an expected 1-16 matchup in the first round of NCAA tournament play shorthanded with Cardoso's anticipated suspension. With Sunday's loss, Angel Reese and the Tigers project to enter NCAA tournament play as a No. 2 seed as they look to defend their championship.

The South Carolina win was the second this season over LSU after a 76-70 victory over the Tigers in January. The Gamecocks needed to rally from an 11-point first-half deficit in that regular-season win on LSU's home court. There was no rally needed on Sunday as South Carolina opened an 18-15 first-quarter lead and didn't trail for the rest of the game.

LSU cut a double-digit deficit to as close a 67-66 midway through the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run. A Raven Johnson bank shot halted the LSU run, and the Tigers never took the lead.