STANFORD, Calif. - Dawn Staley expects her young South Carolina team to be playing well into March for years to come.
The top-seeded Gamecocks never led in their 65-58 loss to No. 4 seed North Carolina in the Stanford Regional semifinals Sunday night, and Staley will find plenty of lessons from this game - this big stage - to motivate her young women moving forward.
"I'm just disappointed our season ends tonight. I am proud of the team we put on the floor," Staley said. "Our players did what most people thought they couldn't do. This won't be the last time you see this South Carolina team here this late in the season. I'm looking forward to the future.
Now, it's back to the gym and film room.
Even a limping Diamond DeShields proved too much for South Carolina in this rematch for Carolina bragging rights.
DeShields escaped two close calls with injury to score 19 points, leading North Carolina one win closer to a sweet reunion with healing coach Sylvia Hatchell.
"I didn't want to have that burden on my shoulders not having done everything I could to contribute to the team win. I didn't hold my team back," DeShields said. "Coach trusted me, trusted my instincts. He put me out there and he gave me a chance."
Brittany Rountree converted a pair of free throws with 1:14 left and two more at the 36.4-second mark to help seal it for the No. 4 seed Tar Heels (27-9), who backed up their December victory against the Gamecocks with another on the NCAA tournament stage.
The Tar Heels will play in Tuesday night's regional final against second-seeded Stanford (32-3), an 82-57 winner on its home court against No. 3 seed Penn State in Sunday's first game.
Alaina Coates hit several key baskets down the stretch on the way to 22 points for South Carolina (29-5), held to 37.7-percent shooting while committing 13 turnovers.
"They put us back on our heels and forced us into some foul trouble you don't want to anticipate coming into a game like this," Staley said.
North Carolina needs one more win to be reunited with Hatchell, whose doctors have said she could travel to the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn., after recently undergoing her final chemotherapy session for leukemia.
Hatchell hasn't coached this season after being diagnosed with leukemia in October, though she does plenty of game planning with associate coach Andrew Calder by phone. She texts her players encouraging words before games, too.
"She said, 'I have faith in you, I'm proud of you, go out and play hard,"' DeShields said.
DeShields threw everything at advancing her team to Tuesday night's regional final against second-seeded Stanford (32-3).
The Atlantic Coast Conference's top freshman blocked South Carolina's opening shot of the second half, and jumped in the passing lane for a steal six minutes later.
The arena fell silent when DeShields first went down with an apparent right ankle injury just 2:23 into the game. DeShields returned five minutes later and hit a jumper to push North Carolina's lead to 11-6.
She went down again at the 7:51 mark, grabbing left leg before hustling to the bench with a limp and grimacing in pain. She scored under the basket on the play.
Following the media timeout, she came back out, calmly hit a free throw to complete the three-point play and give Tar Heels a 20-10 advantage, and then returned to the bench.
On a late possession in the first half, she knocked down a baseline jumper with the shot clock winding down to put her team ahead 29-15. But there would be one more scary moment. With 1:09 to play in the half, DeShields slammed into the basket support and bounced right back.
Tiffany Davis knocked down a 3-pointer 22 seconds before halftime to bring South Carolina within 29-21 at intermission.
Tiffany Mitchell hit back-to-back 3-pointers to keep South Carolina close midway through the second half, then Coates scored four straight points to pull the Gamecocks within 43-42 at the 8:43 mark.
North Carolina answered almost every threat.
The Gamecocks, with the first No. 1 seed in program history, hoped to avenge an eight-point loss from Dec. 18 played on a neutral court in Myrtle Beach.
"I think we exceeded a lot of people's expectations outside of our locker room," junior forward Aleighsa Welch said. "We definitely weren't surprised to get to this point, we wanted to go further, but a lot of people didn't expect us to be the team we were this year with what we lost last year. We have almost everybody coming back, plus a good recruiting class, so the sky's the limit for us next year."