ALBANY — Despite a scare early on, South Carolina used a late run to pull away from Buffalo late and grab a win in the NCAA regional semifinals on Saturday at the Times Union Center, 79-63.
Early on, it looked as though the 11-seed would hang with South Carolina, who came into the game and this season as the defending national champions, and even possibly pull off a shocking upset. They held a one-point lead at the end of the first quarter and kept it close for the majority of the second. This was much in part due to the strong shooting of Cierra Dillard who scored 16 points in the first half, six of them coming from behind the three-point arc.
After that, though, she was relatively quiet but still scored 13 in the second for a total of 29. She ended up shooting 4-10 in the second for a total of 9-22 and 4-11 from three.
“Can’t make everything, but I think just getting loose in the game, it’s a different stage, and coach (Felisha Legette-Jack) does a great job of just telling us to just stay loose and get open shots, and you take the shots you’re supposed to take,” Dillard said.
Things changed late in the first half. The Gamecocks finished the first half on a 17-6 run in the final five and a half minutes and ended up owning a nine-point lead at the break after the team struggled a bit to open the game.
“I just thought we played too fast. I think our team was anxious to play. We’ve been working on Buffalo for four days, and we saw ways in which we could be effective, and we just played too fast,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of her team’s play in the first 20 minutes.
South Carolina allowed the Bulls to stay in it throughout the third quarter as it was 55-48 heading into the final frame, but the Gamecocks outscored Buffalo 24-15 in the fourth in order to secure their victory and a berth into the Elite Eight for the third time in the past four years.
On offense it was A’Ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings leading the way as they each scored 20 points. Wilson also added 13 rebounds, while Jennings had nine. South Carolina out-rebounded Buffalo 48-21 all day, really picking it up late.
“We came together and set the tempo and got the momentum back the way that we did and stayed within our system, and we executed pretty well,” Wilson said.
The Gamecocks advance to the Elite Eight following the victory.
“I’m excited to get back to the Elite Eight. Obviously, I don’t know a whole lot of people outside of our camp that thought we would be here today, but it’s always good to prove others wrong and be odds-beaters,” Staley said.
However, they have a very tough road ahead of them as they will be facing top-seeded UConn who won Saturday’s other semifinal game. The final will be played on Monday night at the Times Union Center, and tip-off is set for 7 p.m.