South Carolina ended Creighton’s Cinderella run in the NCAA tournament with a dominant 80-50 victory on Sunday. Now the Gamecocks return to the Final Four for the second consecutive postseason. The Elite Eight victory was one of this team’s best performances of the season on both ends of the court. Their defense stifled a good scoring Creighton team, and they were as sharp and efficient on offense as they have been all year. Dawn Staley’s team travels to Minneapolis on Friday to face the Louisville Cardinals in the national semifinals.
Gamecocks Return to the Final Four
This team has been on a mission since their heartbreaking defeat in the 2021 Final Four. The main goal all year long has been to make it back to this point and get a level of redemption, or even revenge, for the way last season ended. They have been the number one ranked team in the country since the preseason, and remained so while facing the toughest schedule in the nation. South Carolina is now two wins away from their second national title in program history.
Aliyah Boston is the front runner for National Player of the Year. She showed everyone why in the victories over UNC and Creighton. The junior center scored all 13 of her team’s points in the fourth quarter against the Tar Heels. That capped off a dominant 28-point 22-rebound performance. She followed that up with 19 points and seven boards in the Elite Eight, and only played a minute of fourth-quarter action. Her streak of 27 consecutive double-doubles may have ended, but she still showed why she is the nation’s best player. Boston will need to continue her dominance if the Gamecock’s return to the Final Four is going to end with another set of nets being cut down.
Back Court Duo
South Carolina is not a prolific outside shooting team. When they do get buckets from outside the paint, they usually come from either Destanni Henderson or Zia Cooke. They each hit big jumpers early in the contest with North Carolina, helping to open the paint for Boston to take over later. Henderson has been excellent at point guard this season. The senior has run the team with great efficiency and pace. Her performances have been a culmination of her development over her career. Running the point for Coach Staley is not easy, and Henderson has grown into that role season by season in Columbia.
Cooke has struggled at different times during the year, but she was huge in the first three-quarters of the Sweet Sixteen win. She was decisive and aggressive in her attacks, and her jump shot was falling early on. Cooke is such a key factor for this team, because she can create her own shot and take over a game on offense. Ironically, she didn’t score in the win over Creighton, and the Gamecocks still cruised to victory. They will need her to be aggressive and productive in Minneapolis.
The reason that Cooke’s scoreless Elite Eight performance didn’t hurt South Carolina is because they got big contributions up and down the roster. Victoria Saxton had her first double-double of the season and Brea Beal scored a season-high 12 points. These two ladies are the unsung heroes of this team. Both are excellent on defense and show the willingness to take a lesser role because that’s what the team needs from them. Their effort and energy are also the catalysts for the Gamecock’s suffocating defense. If they can replicate the same offensive output this weekend, South Carolina will be hoisting a trophy on Sunday.
The bench also came up big against Creighton, with Laeticia Amihere and Kamilla Cardoso combining for 18 points and seven rebounds. Amihere is a versatile and athletic forward, but sometimes struggles with her finishing ability. Cardoso was huge in the round of 32 win over Miami and has steadily improved all season long. Depth is such a strength for this team, and these two could be huge factors this weekend.
The Main Goal
South Carolina has been the wire-to-wire top-ranked team in the nation. They have done so against the toughest schedule, and they have shown they can win in multiple ways. However, despite all the success, the main goal is still out there to be reached. The Gamecock’s return to the Final Four has been the focus all campaign. Now they are back where they want to be, two wins away from bringing home a National Title.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images