SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Alaina Coates went from teammate to teammate, offering any consolation she could. Khadijah Sessions covered her face with a towel. Tiffany Mitchell sat stone-faced and silent, and if struggling to comprehend what had unfolded on the court.
The shock of an unexpected season-ending loss permeated the South Carolina locker room Friday after the top-seeded Gamecocks allowed a 13-point lead to become an 80-72 loss to No. 4 seed Syracuse in the women’s NCAA Tournament. A team with aspirations of the Final Four was instead eliminated in a regional semifinal at the Denny Sanford Premier Center.
“To see it all come to an end in a way we weren’t expecting it to, a way weren’t hoping it to,” said senior wing Asia Dozier, “it’s just hard to take.”
South Carolina’s inside tandem of Coates and A’ja Wilson scored 18 and 15 respectively, but the Gamecocks undone by a Syracuse defense that forced them into too many turnovers and lulled them into taking too many 3s. USC gave the ball away 18 times, many of those self-inflicted, and shot 8 of 32 from beyond the arc — including 1 of 16 in the second half.
The 32 attempts were easily a season high, eclipsing 25 taken against Clemson. “We took the bait,” Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley said. “If you look at the stats, our post players are 17 of 22 from the floor, 31 rebounds, 31 points. Shooting that percentage, we should have been trying to get that ball in a lot more than what we did.”
Alexis Peterson scored 26 to lead Syracuse, which will play either No. 3 seed Ohio State or No. 7 seed Tennessee on Sunday for the right to go to the Final Four. The Orange (28-7) lost to USC by 29 in an NCAA game last season in Columbia, but Friday didn’t wilt even after the Gamecocks (33-2) pushed the lead to 13 shortly before the end of the first half.
“We said, ‘Listen, we have to pack it in, do what we have to do, stay disciplined, poised in our system,’” said Orange head coach Quentin Hillsman, who has Syracuse in the Elite Eight for the first time. “They did it, and stayed with it.”
Tina Roy had five 3s and 17 points at the break, but didn’t score after that. Brianna Butler made four 3-pointers, all in the second half, including one with 3:01 left that gave the Orange a lead they would maintain the rest of the way. She added another in the final minute of a fourth quarter in which USC was outscored 30-16.
“We had a drought,” said Sessions, a senior. “We couldn’t find anybody to knock down shots. We couldn’t get the ball inside. Syracuse stuck with their game plan, packed it in, and made it difficult for us to get the ball inside. And we weren’t knocking down shots, and they were hitting big shots.”
It didn’t help that both Sessions and Mitchell each picked up two first-quarter fouls that limited their minutes and threw South Carolina further out of rhythm. “I had to play less aggressive. That’s not my game,” Mitchell said. The fouls perhaps manifested themselves most late in the game, when Butler and Peterson canned open looks that helped the Orange take control.
“When you’re strapped with foul trouble, that’s what happens,” Staley said. “... When you have to substitute, change your substitution rotation because of fouls, it throws you off a little bit. That’s what happened to us.”
Whatever it was, it produced a South Carolina team that seemed oddly passive at times, and never could unleash the big run that’s knocked out so many opponents in the past. Playing far from the fan base which fueled them to so many victories at Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks made uncharacteristic errors like throwing the ball away on an inbound play, or losing possession because two teammates collided chasing a loose ball.
“I don’t think we completely found our rhythm the whole game,” said Mitchell, a senior All-American who scored eight points in her final appearance for USC. “We found spurts where we were doing well, and then we’d go into a drought. The game was just never in rhythm for us.”
The result was the biggest upset in the women’s tournament so far, and a crushing outcome for a senior-laden South Carolina team ranked No. 3 at the end of the regular season. Now the Gamecocks head home to Columbia, not to repack for the Final Four next weekend, but to ponder the stunning events in Sioux Falls that kept them from returning there.
“I told our players, if you’re hurting, if you’re crying because you’re saying goodbye to our seniors, great,” Staley said. “But you should hurt and cry for not being in this position at this time in the season, and the work you need to put in to ensure that this doesn’t take place prematurely anymore.”