Siroky's SEC Report: Conference Owns Half of Final Four
Stockton Regional Final
South Carolina 71, Florida State 64
The Southeastern Conference champions sprinted out to a 24-17 start.
All-American A’ja Wilson scored nine, with four rebounds and two blocks. Three of the four guards scored the rest.
Florida State reserve Imani White scored five. She had two Elite Eight seasons at Baylor. This is her first year in the ACC.
Wilson got into double figures but picked up a second foul after a foul and sat down with five minutes left in the half. The lead was down to three. but the Gamecocks persevered. They were never overtaken and pushed the lead back to seven inside of two minutes. The half ended, 40-29.
Kaela Davis continued her hot streak and had 12, 5-of-7 from the floor, 2-of-2at the line. As a team, they were 8-of-8 from the line, hitting 60 percent from the floor.
They had caused six turnovers and had four steals. The Seminoles were hitting 38 percent from the floor.
“I just have to play smarter,” Wilson said. “They (her teammates) are playing very well out there and it’s coming together.
“Our defense is great. We’re getting a lot of stops and a lot of transition buckets. Of course I want to be out there, but I just love watching them play right now.”
The plan didn’t work and she got more chances to watch by picking up her third 28 seconds into the second half.
We had said when Alaina Coates went away that this exposed the frontline depth because, in this instance, both bigs were out.
Speed would have to win this one.
Florida State could only cut it to 10 with a minute left. But they missed a 3.
“Well they slowed us down a little hit because they went zone and got stagnant. We have got to get A’ja Wilson back in there because she gives us a big target down there.
“Kaela Davis is finding the gaps to drive.”
Davis was up to 20 points.
Wilson started the fourth with only 11 minutes played.
Freshman guard Tyasha Harris hit a 3. Wilson followed with a lay-in, assist to Allisha Gray.
Florida State made back-to-back steals and converted both. The gap was seven.
It was possible the Seminoles knew the ball was coming inside and so anticipated better in the lane.
Wilson got her fourth and had to stay in.
The Florida State emotional leader is 6-1 senior Ivey Slaughter. She is the leading rebounder and free-throw scorer.
It was time for that. Forida State got two offensive rebounds on one possession. Slaughter converted hers.
She got a defensive rebound which led to a basket by senior guard Leticia Romero. Slaughter was up to nine rebounds, six defensive, right at her average.
Brittany Brown got a steal off of a timeout drove for layup. It was anyone’s game, three points. SC turned it over, inside of three minutes.
Davis drove for a layup. She knocked it loose at the other end but stepped on the endline.
With 72 second left and a five-point lead, SC did not wilt. They had never been topped and they had possession.
The clock slowly drained. A miss and here came the Seminoles. Wilson challenged, got a block.
Florida State knew it. The bench was in tears.
Chatrice White got a Florida State rebound and scored a layin. Twelve seconds, four points.
One second and Harris the rookie was fouled.
She rimmed on. Made the second. Florida State had no timeouts left.
But it did not matter. Harris stole the attempted inbounds and hit two more. Both South Carolina basketball teams were headed to the Final Fours, now the women qualified.
The SEC owns half of the Final Four. The SEC teams eliminated the Big 12 and ACC. So much for braggin’ rights. Again.
South Carolina gets Stanford.
“I gotta say our biggest thing was coming out and being aggressive,” said Davis. “The good part about it is we are playing defense.” She led all scorers with 23.
South Carolina held them 15 under their offensive average and scored 13 more than they had allowed all season, which was a program record.
The Gamecocks impressed their defensive will while overcoming the other team’s best. Florida State was 36 percent from the field.
Wilson and Harris tied with 16 each. Gray scored 11.
“God has been good to our program,” Staley said.
“He’s been good to me personally. And this wouldn’t be possible without Him.
“Although we see the victory side of it, the defeat side of it is, some seniors won’t get to experience going to a Final Four and I do feel for them. But at the same time, I’m happy for our players. I’m happy that they put themselves in the position to go on and realize their dreams, as well.”
Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, of course, had to sit and watch last season while they served their transfer penalty. But boy did they play this season. And now join a fantastic SEC senior class next season.
“I think the biggest thing tonight was our defense,” Davis said. “We found ways to get stops.
“You know, I think we started the game off really well.
“But you know, obviously it’s just being aggressive. I think my main point was just to come in and be aggressive and then our goal was obviously to get to the Final Four, and we managed to accomplish that.
“Obviously with A’Ja, she draws a lot of attention. So you know, with her being out, we had to start scoring and get buckets. We were getting stops, but they kind of went on runs here and there. We had to find a way to counter that and balance out a little bit.”
Even though Florida State got the deficit to three, they never caught up.
The Seminoles missed seven of their last eight shots.
“Yeah, I think in that situation, I feel like it’s a time-and-score situation. It was one of those things where we didn’t necessarily need to get a shot unless we had a good one, and we just had to find ways to get stopped. They really started pushing the ball at us late in the second half.
“We had to find a way to slow them down. But at the same time, like I said, we were trying to find a way just to work the clock and take good shots.
“We’ve had our fair share of adversity but this team has found ways to time and time again, just fight through it and find a way to be better because of it.
“I think just attacking them. We weren’t settling for jumpshots, which I think is the best thing we could have done. I think towards the fourth quarter, we were just kind of passing it and waiting for a good shot to come.
“But I think it was one of those things, we kind of had to create a good shot for ourselves.
“They were doing a good job of keeping us outside the paint, and really making us, like I said, pass the ball around the 3-point line. I think it was one of those things where I kind of saw everybody was a little raised up and found a gap somehow.
“It makes it 10 times better to be able to say you want to do something and accomplish it.
“You know, it’s been a long year, a lot of ups and downs, but I think we’re finding a way to end on a high note and to, you know, just put everything together.”
Harris, the rookie, hit the final free throws and had the final steal to seal the deal.
“We kind of just stuck with the game plan,” Harris said. “We just focused on defense and trying to stop our man. And the last steal, I just saw it coming and just grabbed it, and, I don’t know, that’s what happened.”
Davis danced as the horn sounded, but she looked to her leader even then.
“Yeah, I think A’Ja started it. I don’t know, it’s just one of those in-the-moment things, having fun. We love our band. They are funny -- funny, funny people. They are just really good people to be around. So I think it was just a way to kind of show that we appreciate them.”
“Well, we won despite turning the ball over,” Staely said.
“We won despite their runs. I thought them going to a zone and slowing us down and taking away some driving lanes really stalled our offense a little bit. But it also took possessions away.
“We didn’t want to take quick shots, so it almost played into our hands, minus the turnovers. So we ran the clock a little bit, and if that game is maybe five minutes longer, we could have a different result.
“But I just thought we were timely with getting stops. We were timely with getting key rebounds. I thought Doniyah Cliney came in and gave us some great minutes, and got some rebounds when I didn’t think we were in the play. We just made plays and we were very efficient on the offensive end.
“ Since we’ve gone to a smaller lineup, it’s created more scoring opportunities for Kaela, more driving lanes for her to get to the basket and more opportunity for her to pull up, as well.
“She’s seeing it and she’s hitting those holes like a running back. You know, for her to perform the way she does, she did this past weekend, it just goes to show the type of player she is.
“You know, obviously we wanted this all year long. But it takes some adjusting to not having the ball in your hands. But not having Alaina Coates, puts the ball in her hands a lot more; had we had Alaina.
“Alaina, you don’t want anyone’s career to end, but it’s been a blessing in disguise for us. We got a little bit more balanced, and you know, Kaela has benefitted from it.
“Well, we exploited -- we exploited putting the ball on the floor and challenging them to stop us one-on-one. That was the game plan, to attack their feet, put them back on their heels. When it’s like that, you’re not going to -- if you get all the way to the basket, you get all the way to the basket; and if you couldn’t, then you kick it out.
“So there weren’t very many opportunities to assist the basket, because we found a way to get to the basket. And when it’s working, you continue it.
“I mean, they are a team that they never find themselves out of the game because they play so fast, they take quick shots, they get the ball up-and-down the floor and they turn you over, as well.
“We wanted to make sure we got shots at the basket and unfortunately for us, we had 18 turnovers and that allowed them to get back in the game.
“(That) had a lot to do with getting back in the game by turning us over. Obviously we have to clean that up before we take on a Stanford team.”
Two of the other coaches in the Final Four are former Olympic coaches. Staley is about to join that group.
“I think it’s great. As a coach, you want to coach against the best.
“That’s why I left Temple to come to South Carolina to coach in the SEC with what I think is some of the greatest coaches in the game.
“And then you get to this stage at the Final Four, and then it’s another tier of coaches who have won national championships, have won Gold Medals, have won a thousand games.
“I think it’s just great. I think I’m going to be amongst greatness and hopefully with that, you know, it will be a great experience with South Carolina.”
She appreciates the growth or her game, from advancing to averaging the best attendance nationwide – 10,000 – to the upgrade in even celebrations.
Two years ago, “Probably 7,000 less Gamecock fans. It felt different because it there was no confetti, there was no screaming. There wasn’t any passion behind it.
“And obviously we’re 3,000 miles away from home, but when you’re a little bit closer, your fans are right on top of you. It just seemed like everybody was kind of far away, and it almost, it took you back, because you’re like, did this really happen?
“Are we going to the Final Four?
“But it sank in. It sank in when we were standing out there and enjoying each other’s company.”
Then there’s Basketball U, the only school in the country with teams in the men’s and women’s Final Fours.
“It’s incredible. I mean, it’s something that Frank and I have both worked hard for. When we came to South Carolina, I’m quite sure he felt the same way, and I don’t want to speak for him -- but Frank is a great coach. He’s a great coach. He does some great things.
“As a coach, you feel like there are things that you can control; that you can get people to execute; you can get people to believe in your vision, even the talent, this group of players that you assemble.
“But you can’t do it without talent, you can’t do it without belief. You can’t do it without a togetherness. You can’t do it without the support of your administrators, your president on down, without it working; and we felt this for -- you know, I’ve been at South Carolina for nine years. This is Frank’s fifth year.
“For us to be able to experience three Final Fours in the short time that we’ve been here, there’s a lot of love on our campus from everyone, and our fans.
“Our fans are so deserving of this because, you know, they have been there. You know, when we won two SEC games, they have been there. When we have been left out of the NCAA Tournament, they have been there.
“And now they get to share in the joys of us playing, being one of the last four teams to participate in this long basketball season. They deserve it.”
They drew 3,134 for the Regional title game.
Wilson was selected as the Southeastern Conference’s only first team Associated Press All-American, as we called two weeks ago. Teammate Alaina Coates is AP honorable mention.
At Final Four
Mississippi State (33-4) vs. UConn (36-0)
Mississippi State placed three on the Oklahoma City Regional all-Region team: Victoria Vivians, Teaira McCowan and Morgan William, the Most Outstanding Player. All are juniors.
Vivians also was selected a third team Associated Press All-American. Morgan William is an honorable mention AP All-America
Next up for Mississippi State is the challenge of UConn on Friday night in the national semifinal.
UConn ended the season for Oregon on Monday night. Someday, maybe in our lifetime, UConn will lose a game. Mississippi State gets the next whack at them.
That means the represented conferences in the finals are the SEC, Pac 12 and American Athletic.
If UConn wins, it breaks the conference championship tie with the Big 12, with four, though it is also responsible for eight of the nine Big East titles which leads the pack.
Tennessee’s Mercedes Russell and Kentucky’s Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are honorable mention Associated Press All-American.