ALBANY, N.Y. – That the upstate New York crowd wasn’t rooting for South Carolina didn’t matter one bit to A’ja Wilson. Her imposing presence inside and her booming voice proved enough for the Gamecocks to escape Buffalo.
The 6-foot-5 Wilson, the consensus first pick in the next WNBA draft, had 20 points and 13 rebounds, Alexis Jennings added 20 points, and South Carolina held off the upstart Bulls 79-63 on Saturday to keep alive its quest to defend its national title.
“I just feel like my energy really helps my teammates,” Wilson said. “That’s the biggest thing. That’s my goal, whether it’s screaming at one or just screaming at everyone. That’s just how I operate. I really try to use that on every possession.
“We have to let each other know that everything’s going to be OK.”
That reassurance didn’t come until late in the game.
The Gamecocks led 55-48 entering the fourth quarter, and the Bulls stayed with them. A layup by Autumn Jones cut the lead to five, but after South Carolina committed a turnover, Buffalo center Cassie Oursler lost the ball out of bounds, the ball gently rolling off her fingertips under the basket at the other end, a critical miscue.
Wilson’s three-point play gave the Gamecocks a 60-52 lead before Cierra Dillard’s driving layup off the glass with 6:38 left cut the deficit again. But Buffalo missed three straight shots and a fast-break layup by Doniyah Cliney gave South Carolina a 10-point lead with just over five minutes to go.
South Carolina’s dominance inside against the smaller Bulls spelled the difference. The Gamecocks outrebounded Buffalo 48-21, outscored the Bulls 20-5 on second-chance points, and finished with a 52-30 edge in the paint.
“We just did what we do best,” Jennings said.
Second-seeded South Carolina (29-6), whose only losses this season have come against ranked teams, will face top-seeded and unbeaten UConn in the regional final on Monday night.
Dillard led Buffalo with 29 points, the only Bulls player in double figures.
Buffalo (29-6), just the third Mid-American Conference school to reach the Sweet 16, was among the final four teams to earn an at-large berth. It was the program’s second tournament appearance after a first-round exit two years ago, and though the loss dampened their spirits, don’t expect it to last.
“We’re going to enjoy it,” Oursler said. “We changed the program for Buffalo and we know that, so we’re obviously going to enjoy this time, and it’s nice to know we’re leaving a group of women who are going to carry this on and keep killin’ it for future years to come. It’s just a growing program and it’s nice to see that.”
The Gamecocks, who have won six straight, defeated North Carolina A&T and Virginia by double digits in the first two rounds, holding both to under 60 points as they stayed on track to make a third Final Four in four seasons.
But those performances had flaws – 19 turnovers in one – that coach Dawn Staley focused on correcting. They didn’t on Saturday – South Carolina had 26 turnovers – but in the end it didn’t matter.
Buffalo is a senior-dominated team and has players from around the globe – four from Australia, a couple of Canadians, one from Nigeria – as well as Buffalo-area locals. That melting pot of sorts had created a close-knit group and they helped contribute to the madness of March that has seen 11th seeds wreak havoc on brackets. The 11th-seeded Bulls had already vanquished sixth-seeded South Florida (102-79) and third-seeded Florida State (86-65) – on the Seminoles home court, no less.
Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack, who nearly quit coaching after being fired by Indiana, had said her Bulls were “too silly and quirky to be afraid” and their late-season rush proved it.
The Bulls had lost only once in 13 games, the lone setback coming against Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament two weeks ago. That was one of two setbacks to CMU, which won the MAC title and also reached the Sweet 16.
As they often did during the season, the Bulls attacked South Carolina repeatedly from beyond the arc. They finished 7 of 24 (29.2 percent), well below their season average (33.6 percent).
“One thing about shooting, it’s going to come and go,” said Legette-Jack, who gave Aussie senior guard Stephanie Reid a tearful embrace in the final seconds. “Our shooting were the shots we usually take. They don’t go in all the time.”
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