Welch finale: ‘I’m more than proud’

Notre Dame forward Taya Reimer (12) shoots against South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch (24) and South Carolina guard Khadijah Sessions (5) during the second half of the NCAA Women's Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game, Sunday, April 5, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

One last time, Aleighsa Welch sat in a locker room full of her beloved South Carolina teammates and led by example.

“A comeback doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t finish it,” the Goose Creek High School graduate said Sunday night after almost willing the Gamecocks into the national championship game.

Welch fought back tears. Her eyes were bloodshot.

She tried so hard in guiding South Carolina back from a late 12-point deficit against Notre Dame, she had to be helped off the court by teammate Khadijah Sessions.

“She almost fell down,” Sessions said.

The Irish escaped with a 66-65 victory in a Final Four semifinal game at Amalie Arena, ending South Carolina’s dream season and Welch’s college career.

More tears.

“It’s like family,” said Welch, a 6-0 forward. “My teammates, my coaches, the fans. The relationships I’ve built. That’s the hardest part to come to grips with, knowing that my career is over. No matter what happens in my future, it’s not going to be the same.”

What a game. Welch grabbed 14 rebounds. She scored eight of her 10 points in the final nine minutes. Her last basket put South Carolina ahead 65-64 with 1:12 left.

It was everything Welch could have imagined four years ago when she joined the Gamecock program as Dawn Staley’s first in-state signee: Four NCAA Tournament appearances, three Sweet 16s, a Final Four.

South Carolina’s three-year team captain was one minute from the biggest game in women’s college basketball.

Clawing into position to knock off Notre Dame at the end was a grand achievement for South Carolina. It’s the fifth straight Final Four for the Irish, a big first for the Gamecocks.

Staley repeated the “business trip” mantra all week.

Sure, just another road game.

Except family members came along. On Easter Sunday.

Football coach Steve Spurrier and men’s basketball coach Frank Martin were in the traveling party.

Resisting the temptation to check out Iceploration over at Busch Gardens, that’s one thing. It was obviously best to save the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Pete for another trip.

Conquering nerves was another thing. Sloppiness led to early trouble. Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw applied pressure with a basic zone defense, a box-and-1 with Jewel Loyd on South Carolina scoring leader Tiffany Mitchell and a triangle-and-2 with defenders chasing Mitchell and sharpshooter Tina Roy.

“Everything but the kitchen sink,” McGraw said.

It should have been over at 64-52 with 7:51 remaining.

But, as Welch said, “It was not unfamiliar territory.”

As they did last week in Greensboro Regional wins over North Carolina and Florida State, the Gamecocks began chipping away.

“I’m more than proud,” Welch said. “This is a very resilient team. The hard part is swallowing the fact that my career is over. That’s the part that hurts the most. I really just want to go to everybody and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I wanted to win a national championship.”

It’s too bad many people who tuned in to watch the Gamecocks play Notre Dame saw them only once before this season, in the 25-point loss at Connecticut in February. South Carolina is better than that.

A 10-3 record this year against ranked opponents is proof.

Aleighsa Welch had a lot to do with that, too.

“She brought a lot to this university,” said Sessions, a junior guard from Myrtle Beach. “And she has a lot more to go. She’s going to get to the WNBA. And Aleighsa is smart; she will get a good degree and a good job. She’s a great leader. She showed the world what kind of leader she is, on and off the floor.”

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff