SAN ANTONIO — If there is a belief in cruel irony or poetic justice, it was right then. South Carolina’s last chance to win its Final Four matchup with Stanford on April 2 seemed used since the Cardinal had the ball, the lead and less than 9 seconds to play.
But Aliyah Boston got to Stanford’s Cameron Brink at the same time as the inbound pass, stole the ball and passed to Brea Beal. With four seconds on the clock, Beal madly dashed toward the Gamecocks’ basket.
The Cardinal’s Lexie Hull was in her way and Beal couldn’t find the range, missing the layup, but Boston, the 6-5 All-American center who makes her living in the paint, had chased the ball and was right there, timing her jump just as the carom landed right in her hands.
She put it up as the buzzer sounded, a feather-light touch just enough to send the Gamecocks to the national championship game …
And it came back out. Stanford 66, USC 65.
Game, and season, over.
Because of the same issue that plagued the Gamecocks throughout the year, throughout their four previous losses and throughout the semifinal matchup.
They couldn’t make layups, and the final two misses that clinched a one-point loss made them a staggering 7 for 25 for the night. The year’s final stats of missed layups, none of which would matter had that one just gone through, became the definition of a terrific yet disappointing season, one where the Gamecocks felt they let a championship slip away.
“We got a pretty decent two looks at it, layup, follow-up,” USC coach Dawn Staley said. “I thought about the UConn game, I thought it was going to be redemption for Aliyah, for that ball to drop in for her. But it wasn’t in the cards for her.”
The Gamecocks lost at UConn in overtime on Feb. 8 because they couldn’t make layups, particularly two cracks at the end of regulation. Missed layups were a similar story in losses to N.C. State, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
“I definitely thought Brea had a good look, we got a good steal,” Gamecocks guard Zia Cooke said. “It was in our hands, but we just came up short.”
A season spent attempting to nab the prize they felt they were denied last year due to the pandemic ended two wins short. USC was thought to be stumbling toward the finish line after going 2-2 in their final four regular-season games and losing the SEC regular-season championship to Texas A&M, but regrouped by handily winning the SEC Tournament and sweeping through its first four NCAA Tournament games.
The last, a 62-34 Elite Eight rout of Texas where the Longhorns didn’t score in the fourth quarter, seemed to be about as perfect as USC could play. Cooke said no, the Gamecocks were very close to playing their best but they still hadn’t done it.
The quest to do so will have to wait another season. USC (26-5) was a great team, bordering on excellent. But it wasn’t the team it wanted to be this weekend, the one that could have raised a trophy in two days.
“I just told our players that the margin of error was that small,” Staley said. “It won’t be our last time being in this situation. Next year, we’ve just got to practice with that margin in mind.”
It was 15-6 USC at the first media timeout and everything was clicking. The Gamecocks’ big three of Boston, Destanni Henderson and Cooke was hitting shots, gobbling turnovers and running the Cardinal (30-2) out of the Alamodome.
But that break switched everything. Stanford’s defense regrouped and took away the lanes, and USC began hoisting panicky shots. The Cardinal owned the glass, particularly offensively, crushing the Gamecocks with 24 second-chance points.
USC scored 10 points in the final 15 minutes of the first half, on 3-of-22 shooting. Boston was her usual efficient self with 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks, and Cooke, riding a hot first half, kept it going to finish with 25.
They didn’t get enough help. Elite Eight stalwart Laeticia Amihere again picked up two quick fouls in the first half but didn’t have the magnificent second half she had against Texas. Henderson, the point guard, scored 18 points but had five turnovers.
USC tied the game three times in the second half, but Stanford always had an answer, usually a Haley Jones basket or a USC foul. Even when Henderson splashed a lead-taking 3-pointer with 38 seconds to play, Jones corralled a loose ball after a Hull miss and drained a jumper for the lead.
Any loss is tough to swallow, but to see missed layups determine it was especially grueling. The Gamecocks had seemingly figured it out throughout the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, only to see the weakness rise again at the worst possible time.
In a tearful locker room, there wasn’t much to feel good about, although the future is startlingly bright. The Gamecocks only had one senior this year (Lele Grissett, who missed the NCAA Tournament with a leg injury). Everybody else stands to return, and USC signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
Nobody wanted to think of that at the moment. They could only think that they were that close to claiming a national championship, one they feel they deserved the past two seasons, and will instead watch Stanford or Arizona go home with it.
“It’s going to stick with me because it was a big game. Final Four, it’s a dream to be here,” Cooke said. “Like coach said, we’re going to work on the little things and what we can do better, to get here next year and come out with the victory.”