Women's College Basketball

Gamecocks Down Cardinals, advance to Women’s NCAA Championship


South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston prepares to drive on Louisville’s Emily Engstler during Friday night’s NCAA Woman’s Basketball Final Four semifinal game at Target Center in Minneapolis. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine.

MINNEAPOLIS – The South Carolina Gamecocks, led by AP National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston’s 23 points and 18 rebounds, downed the Louisville Cardinals with a 72-59 victory in the semifinal round of the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis Friday night.

The Gamecocks got the scoring started immediately by jumping out to a quick 11-2 run before the media timeout with 5:29 remaining in the first quarter.

Once the game resumed, Louisville gained composure and began to battle back. Forward Emily Engstler scored four points in the second half of the quarter which helped refocus the Cardinal. At the end of the first quarter, South Carolina maintained a 17-10 lead.

South Carolina forward Victaria Saxton scored on a layup just 38 seconds into the second quarter and then Louisville’s defense kicked into gear. Engstler, forward Olivia Cochran and guard Kianna Smith led the Cardinal on a 12-2 run to give them a 22-19 lead with 6:14 left in the half.

Gamecocks guard Brea Beal was the next player to step up, scoring six points in the remaining half of the quarter to give South Carolina a 34-28 halftime lead.

The third quarter was almost a repeat of the first. South Carolina went on an 8-2 run thanks to guard Zia Cooke’s three-pointer and driving layup in transition, to go along with guard Destanni Henderson’s trey within the first two minutes of the quarter. Two free throws from Saxton gave the Gamecocks a commanding 44-30 lead with 7:40 left in the third quarter.

Engstler and Smith each scored six points in the remainder of the quarter to cut the deficit to six, but that was negated by eight points scored by South Carolina’s Boston. The Gamecocks led at the end of the third quarter, 57-48.

Louisville fought the score, the clock and foul trouble during the entire fourth quarter. Boston and Beal continued to add points for South Carolina, only to be answered by Louisville’s Cochran or Engstler. With 6:12 remaining in the regulation, the deficit was still nine points.

Louisville Cardinals guard Hailey Van Lith brings the ball up the court during Friday night’s NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal game against South Carolina at Target Center in Minneapolis. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine.

Engstler fouled out with 4:56 left in the game, which forced guard Hailey Van Lith to pick up the scoring. She scored five points in the quarter while Cochran added four, but that was no match for Boston’s seven points in the quarter. When the final buzzer sounded, South Carolina found themselves headed for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game with a 72-59 win.

Boston led all scorers and rebounders with 23 points and 18 rebounds. Beal scored 12, Henderson 11 while Saxton and Cooke each scored 10 for the Gamecocks.

Louisville was led by Engstler’s 18 points, while Van Lith and each scored 14. Engstler and Van Lith both led the Cardinal in rebounding with nine boards each.

South Carolina shot 47.4 percent from the field on 27-for-57 shooting and six three-pointers. Louisville hit 42.9 percent of their shots on 27-for-63 shooting and one three-pointer. The difference was on the free throw line where Carolina made 12-of-17 free throws compared to four-of-seven for Louisville.

“First, I just want to say that Louisville did an extremely great job of just competing. We could never put them away because of their fight and their competitiveness and their ability to hang in there and defend and score and turn us over. They created a great environment for all of women’s basketball fans to be excited about,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley.

“Sometimes when the lights come on, it just takes you a little bit longer to just kind of get your equilibrium, and once [Louisville] did, they ended up coming roaring back. But I was happy that we saw some shots go in, and I was happy that we were able to take their hit and just keep playing,” she added.

Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said, “First, I’d just like to congratulate South Carolina, Dawn, on what I thought was a great basketball game.”

The Gamecocks lost last year’s semifinal game to Stanford, 66-65 in San Antonio, which served as a catalyst for returning players this season.

South Carolina Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston, the AP National Player of the Year, scored 23 points and grabbed 18 rebounds during Friday night’s NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal win over the Louisville Cardinals at Target Center in Minneapolis. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine.

“Last year we lost in the Final Four but this year we knew that were going to be tested and this is the hump that we need to get over. And we got over that tonight and we’re on to the National Championship game, so we’re really excited,” said Boston. “God is at the forefront of everything that happens in our life, and my mom just sent me that reminder to know that He has already equipped us to win this game, and he’s already written everything down in his book. So that’s just a reminder to not go into the game with any kind of nerves because it’s already written and the game is in God’s hands.”

Henderson said, “I feel like last year we fell short when we lost in the Final Four. I feel like this year, it’s a relief right now, and it feels great. But we’re going to take in this moment, and we’re not done yet. We still have unfinished business.”

Beal added, “Definitely started with the first official practice we had. We wanted to find a way where we could gel together, play together, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing this whole season. We had to turn the page from last and just continue doing us and staying in our circle.”

For Louisville’s Engstler, it turned out to be the final game of her collegiate career.

“Yeah, we lost this game, but I don’t think we gave up, not on one play. I think we should all leave this arena and Minneapolis with our heads held very high. I’m extremely proud of this team, and I’ve had an amazing time with them,” said Engstler, who fouled out in the fourth quarter. “I’m an aggressive basketball player. If that’s how I’m going to go out, then that’s how I was going to go out, but I was going to put everything in me on that floor for these girls and for myself and for our fans, who we had a lot of, and we’re really appreciative. I took a risk, and it happens.”

In Engstler’s absence, Van Lith had to face the pressure of playing the clock and the score.

“I think they did a really good job of making it hard for me to even get the ball. They obviously
clearly were not going to let me get touches. They basically face-guarded me the whole game. They did a good job of executing that, and I did get shots. I played a little passive, I will say that, with their length in the key. I was able to get to spots in the key but they’re long, they’ve got Aliyah Boston and Saxton in there,” Van Lith said, “Yeah, I think it was a little — I needed to get going a little earlier and needed to be more aggressive, especially off of pick and roll. But they did a good job of executing their game plan with me, and I’ll take that and learn from it.”
When asked what it would take for Louisville to return to the Final Four and compete for a National Championship, and if he would do anything differently, Walz got pointed.

“We’re not going to change anything. I don’t think there’s any reason to change anything. We’ve been to four Final Fours in 15 years. I don’t think that’s too shabby. Do we want to win a National Championship? Of course we do. But again, I’m just telling you, you’ve got to get lucky. You’ve got to get a few breaks to go your way. In ’18 I thought that was probably our best shot to win one, and unfortunately we didn’t get some breaks,” said Walz.

“I listen to people talk about other coaches who have a dynasty going and they’ve been to four Final Fours. So have we. It just all depends what your narrative, what you want it to be. If your narrative wants to be that we can’t win the big game, so be it, that’s what your narrative is going to be,” he added. “But I’m pretty damn impressed with my group. I love my kids. We ain’t going to change a damn thing we do no matter what y’all write. Because if it’s me, I’m being positive of what these kids just did this entire season.”

Looking ahead to the National Championship game, Staley said, “When you’re playing for a National Championship, it is the team that can get to their habits quickly and stay there. We’re very fortunate that we did play both of them, Connecticut a long, long, long time ago, but they’re probably back to where they were when we played them. That’s their norm. Stanford has just gotten better and better and better and better and better, and there’s really no letdown. Whoever it is, you’ve got to go through a quality team to win a National Championship.”

South Carolina will face the University of Connecticut in the National Championship game at 7 p.m. CT Sunday at Target Center in Minneapolis. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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