Champs! Gamecocks Top Mississippi State 67-55 To Capture First NCAA Title
No. 3/4 South Carolina
topped No. 7/7 Mississippi State 67-55 to capture the program’s first
NCAA Championship Sunday night at the American Airlines Center. Juniors
A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray both notched double-doubles to deliver the
2017 title to the Gamecocks, who broke through following their second
Final Four appearance in three years. Carolina ends its historic run
with a final mark of 33-4, while the Bulldogs closed their 2016-17
campaign at 34-5.
Wilson, the NCAA Tournament’s Most
Outstanding Player, again served as the closer for the Gamecocks after
tallying eight fourth-quarter points to go with three rebounds and a
pair of crucial blocks over the final 10 minutes of Sunday’s all-SEC
affair. She finished the contest with a game-high 23 points and 10
rebounds while adding four blocks. Gray, who was named to the
All-Tournament Team along with Wilson, converted a handful of tough
baskets against the Bulldogs en route to 18 points. She collected four
of her 10 rebounds in the fourth period and finished the night 7-of-15
from the floor, while fellow junior guard Kaela Davis chipped in 10
points to mark the third Gamecock to reach double figures.
23-6 first-half run handed the early momentum to Carolina and helped
establish a 13-point lead with less than four minutes to play in the
second quarter. Tough defense down the stretch of the first two periods
keyed the Gamecocks, who headed to the locker room with a double-digit
advantage after holding Mississippi State to just 38.5 percent shooting
in the first 20 minutes. The Bulldogs fought back and came within five
of the lead late in the third quarter, and the Gamecock advantage was
cut to 54-50 with less than seven minutes left in the game. Several key
defensive plays allowed Carolina to remain in charge before Wilson
delivered pivotal baskets down the stretch.
Bulldogs jumped out to a six-point lead before a jumper from the right
block by Wilson and two free throws from Davis cut the Gamecock deficit
to 7-5 with 6:11 left in the first quarter. Junior guard Bianca
Cuevas-Moore, who assisted on Wilson’s inside jumper, remained an early
factor on the offensive end with a layup followed by a point from the
line 34 seconds later to bring the Gamecocks to within one of the lead
at 9-8 midway through the period. Carolina’s offense came from the
paint over the next few minutes, and a spin move from Wilson set the
junior up for a bucket inside before freshman guard Tyasha Harris found
Gray in transition on the break to make it 12-12 with 3:01 to play in
Gray delivered two more plays down the
stretch of the period, starting with a tough jumper from the right side
that evened the score at 14. Her block with 29 seconds left in the
quarter eventually set up two free throws for sophomore guard Doniyah
Cliney that handed Carolina its first lead of the night at 16-14, and
the Gamecocks headed to the first break leading 18-14 after Gray
connected on a pair of shots from the line with a second remaining. The
Gamecock defense locked in as the quarter progressed, and Mississippi
State was held scoreless for the period’s final 2:46 after missing six
of its last seven shots down the stretch.
It was Gray who
again answered the call in the beginning of the second quarter, and a
put-back bucket from the guard led to a three-point play that stretched
Carolina’s lead to 21-14 with 8:07 remaining in the first half. The
Gamecocks, who converted 11 of their first 13 free throw attempts,
continued to collect points at the line, and two more from the charity
stripe by Wilson established a 25-16 advantage with less than seven
minutes to play in the second quarter. The junior forward and Gray
combined for 19 of Carolina’s first 27 points, and the Gamecocks
grabbed firm control of the game and built a 31-18 lead after opening
the quarter on a 13-4 run. Wilson followed her own shot and converted
her fourth field goal of the half to reach double figures and make it
27-18 before Harris’ layup gave the Gamecocks the 13-point lead at
31-18 with 3:39 left in the second quarter.
put-back bucket less than two minutes later maintained Carolina’s
double-digit lead, and another difficult shot from Gray put her team in
front 35-24 with just over a minute to play in the half. The Gamecocks,
who outscored the Bulldogs 18-12 for the quarter, connected on five of
their final six field goal attempts of the half to take a 36-26 lead
into the locker room. Wilson and Gray each netted 11 first-half points,
while Cliney added four off the bench to go with two rebounds over the
first 20 minutes.
Carolina boasted another strong start
out of the break, starting the period on a 6-2 run to open up a
14-point lead. A jumper from Davis followed by a layup in transition by
Cuevas-Moore made it 40-28 before Wilson connected on two free throws
to grow the advantage to 42-28 with 7:54 left in the third quarter. The
Bulldogs climbed back to within five of the lead at 45-40 after
knocking down five field goals over the next five minutes in a 9-0 run
that was capped off by a jumper from just inside the 3-point line with
3:37 to play in the period. Gray’s defense halted the stretch, as the
guard took the ball away before laying it in on the other end to give
the Gamecocks a 47-40 advantage late in the quarter. The play sparked
Carolina for the rest of the period, and a jumper inside from Wilson
followed by Davis’ field goal from the right elbow as time expired
handed the Gamecocks a 52-44 lead as the teams entered the final break.
The Bulldog offense again stalled, as Mississippi State registered zero
points over the final 3:37 of the period.
The teams traded
baskets to start the fourth quarter, with Davis slashing to the right
block before converting the layup to put Carolina ahead 54-46 with 26
seconds gone in the period. The Gamecock offense struggled over the
next few minutes and the Bulldogs took advantage, netting four-straight
points to get within four at 54-50 with 6:52 to play. It was the
Carolina defense that again shifted momentum, as Wilson knocked in a
mid-range jumper 12 seconds after recording a block on the other end.
The bucket made it 56-50, and a steal from Cliney on Mississippi
State’s next possession led to points the other way for the Gamecocks
when Cuevas-Moore found Gray for a layup that pushed the lead to 58-50
midway through the quarter.
Carolina began to pull away as
Wilson imposed her will on both ends of the floor. A nice drive from
the junior led to a layup that pushed the lead back to double-digits at
62-52, and she denied a bucket inside with her fourth block of the
night with less than three minutes to play. Wilson went on to score her
team’s next four points and secure the victory. The Hopkins, S.C.,
native powered her way into the paint before converting another layup,
and a great put-back from Wilson secured the championship and handed
Carolina a 66-52 lead with 1:39 left.
The Gamecocks shot
45.4 percent from the floor and held Mississippi State to just 2-of-12
shooting from beyond the arc. Carolina boasted a 40-27 rebound
advantage and connected on 17 of their 22 free throw attempts.
On what it feels like to deliver a championship at South Carolina
Carolina is a place in which they love their sports. They love winners.
Obviously, if you start winning, and they start believing in your
program, they’re going to come. That’s what took place. I just think
our fans believe in the product. We make them feel a part of our
program. Our town is a sports town. They love their sports. Certainly
the fans have painted a picture of what a national champion looks
like.” – South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley
A’ja Wilson’s ability to protect the rim again paid dividends for
Carolina down the stretch, as the junior swatted away a Mississippi
State shot to help preserve the four-point Gamecock lead with 5:49 to
play in the game. Her layup on Carolina’s ensuing possession stretched
the advantage to 56-50, and the Bulldogs would not get closer the rest
of the way.
Led by A’ja Wilson and tough
buckets inside from fellow junior Allisha Gray, the Gamecocks ended the
night with a 42-20 advantage in points in the paint. Wilson and Gray
accounted for 16 of Carolina’s 25 field goals Sunday.
Four South Carolina programs now boast a National Championship. Women’s
basketball joins women’s outdoor track and field (2002), baseball
(2010, 2011) and equestrian (2005, 2007, 2015) on the list of Gamecock
teams to win a national title.
Sunday marked the sixth time that teams from the same conference played
for the NCAA Title. It was the third time two SEC squads battled for
the national championship.
South Carolina became the first team since UConn in 2002 to win the
national title game without making a 3-pointer.
Both of the last two games between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs have
resulted in a double-digit Carolina win. The three previous meetings
between the two prior to that stretch were all decided by six points or
· Gamecock junior forward
A’ja Wilson notched double-doubles in both of Carolina’s contests in
the Final Four. She sported averages of 18.0 points and 14.5 boards
during the two-game stretch.
Carolina’s 33 wins are tied for the second-most in one season in
program history. The Gamecocks have totaled at least 33 victories in
each of the last three seasons.