GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s defenders chased ballhandlers and used their length to disrupt any flow. Its bigs continued to snag just about every miss coming off the rim.
It’s an unwavering combination, one that at times has the Gamecocks’ push for a second straight national championship flirting with a vibe of inevitability.
Three-time All-American Aliyah Boston had 14 boards and two blocks while reigning national champion South Carolina turned in its latest overwhelming defense-and-rebounding-first performance to beat UCLA 59-43 on Saturday in the Sweet 16 of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
Kamilla Cardoso added 10 points and Boston had eight for the Gamecocks (35-0), the top overall tournament seed and the headliner in the Greenville 1 Region. It marked South Carolina’s 41st consecutive victory, securing the program’s sixth trip to the Elite Eight under coach Dawn Staley.
“We definitely do a lot of (defensive) work in practice, whether it’s ball-screen, whatever the case may be,” said Brea Beal, who had 10 points for South Carolina. “I think for games like this when offensive scoring is very low, we definitely rely on our defense to keep their scoring lower than ours.”
Three games into the NCAAs, the Gamecocks have yet to surrender more than 45 points or let an opponent hit even 30% of its shots. They next face 2-seed Maryland in Monday’s regional final in a rematch of the Gamecocks’ 81-56 win from the season’s opening week.
It wasn’t an easy offensive operation for South Carolina, with UCLA sagging defensively to pack the paint in hopes of negating the Gamecocks’ size advantage behind Boston. But South Carolina turned nearly every look into a difficult one for the fourth-seeded Bruins (27-10).
“It was the lowest point total that anyone had held them to in a half in the first half,” UCLA coach Cori Close said, “and we couldn’t even take advantage of that because we were struggling so much offensively.”
The Gamecocks won the first meeting with UCLA 73-64 in November, with the Bruins shooting 32% in that game. Things got worse this time, with UCLA going shooting 29% — including 3 for 18 from 3-point range.
“I feel like everything was rough,” UCLA guard Camryn Brown said, adding: “We were a little frantic out there.”
By the final horn, UCLA had committed 15 turnovers on 63 possession, a nearly 25% rate.
Charisma Osborne scored 14 points to lead UCLA, which was in the Sweet 16 for the eighth time. The Bruins were trying to reach the regional finals for the first time since 2018 and only the third time in program history while pursuing their first Final Four appearance.
But in a sign of what was to come, the Bruins kept missing shots that they needed for any chance at a stunning upset. Worse, they failed to grab even a few of those misses to keep possessions alive early, with the Gamecocks taking a 9-0 edge in offensive rebounds in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks led 25-15 at halftime before matching their game-long point total in the third quarter.
That included a couple of way-too-familiar sequences for Close. Twice the Gamecocks managed to lob a pass inside to the 6-foot-7 Cardoso, who used her long arms to reach over 6-2 fronting defender Christeen Iwuala and snag the ball for easy under-the-rim finishes in traffic.
Or there was Beal using her right hand to tap out a loose rebound over Gabriela Jaquez before securing it, then dumping it immediately inside to Victaria Saxton inside for a soft hook.
It was all the same often-demoralizing sequences that has overwhelmed teams all season, this time coming with the home-state Gamecocks as the main draw here in the new double-regional format.
They drew loud cheers from the crowd just for making their way into the locker-room tunnel during the Notre Dame-Maryland game with their game to follow. The roars returned as each player who lingered to wrap up pregame shootaround came off the court — several waving two arms high in acknowledgement — in a mostly full arena.
The cheers were louder, of course, as the Gamecocks spent the final minutes closing out a win to advance again.
WORD OF THE DAY
The key for South Carolina’s offense was patience, and making sure to keep working the ball to find seams inside.
“That’s something Coach emphasized at halftime,” Boston said. “She was like … ‘Just take our time, we’re taking great shots but taking a split-second longer could help us out.”
Staley showed a noteworthy bit of sportsmanship in the third quarter.
UCLA’s Emily Bessoir fell awkwardly after trying to beat Boston to a rebound, and the Bruins forward was down on the baseline as the Gamecocks took possession across half-court. But instead of continuing to run the play 5-on-4, Staley burned a timeout and pointed for officials to tend to Bessoir at the far end.
“I think these kind of moments in games, they reveal people’s character,” Close said, “and I think it just revealed a layer of her character, of what she deems most important. And that’s always the kids.”
Staley said: “It was the right thing to do to make sure the young lady was OK.”
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