Undefeated South Carolina enters Elite 8 with defensive win over UCLA

South Carolina’s veteran core contained UCLA to minimal points amid offensive first-half struggles. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

The No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks are headed back to the Elite Eight after putting on a defensive clinic of a 59-43 win over 4-seed UCLA at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville on Saturday.

Headed into the matchup, it seemed that if any team had a chance at stopping the South Carolina, it would be the Bruins, which stood alone as the only team to lose to the the Gamecocks by single digits this season. The team even led at halftime before falling 73-64 in November.

Saturday, the Gamecocks relied on the previous meeting to ensure a victory in the Sweet 16 battle. Pregame, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told ESPN she had learned that UCLA was “patient offensively.” That considered, her plan was to rebound and “speed them up and make them play faster than they wanna play.”

Her veteran heavy team did exactly that. Struggling to keep up with the early pace, UCLA’s Emily Bessoir already had 2 fouls before the 1st quarter’s halfway mark. With almost three minutes left to play, UCLA had 3 turnovers to South Carolina’s zero.

Partially fulfilling the plan, the final minute of the first saw three consecutive missed three-point attempts from South Carolina’s Raven Johnson and Breal Beal. While those second-chance attempts were made possible by offensive rebounds, they illustrated early shooting struggles. The Gamecocks came away from the quarter up 14-8, less of a lead than they probably would have liked.

The second quarter offered more of the same. After holding UCLA to 8 points in the first, their impressive defense continued to hold them to 7 points in the second. Star freshman Kiki Rice had got on the board to score three of those points with a late jumper and would not score again before the final buzzer.

Headed into halftime, the Gamecocks led UCLA 25-15, with the Bruins still without any offensive rebounds — a testament to the stern defense South Carolina showcased. Bessoir’s three fouls and three points were the player-high for UCLA going into the half.

South Carolina’s “freshies,” Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal and Olivia Thompson have lost a mere eight games in their four-year Gamecock careers. They shined in the victory to help South Carolina lead by 20 by the end of the third.

Up 50-30, the freshies were featured in an offensive uptick for the Gamecocks, putting up 25 points in the quarter. 10 points from Beal paired with 8 points and 12 rebounds from Boston made all the difference.

The third quarter was also highlighted by 10 points from Kamilla Cardoso and an impressive chase down block with 4 minutes left to play.

The final period of play was a continued defensive effort with the first score being held until the 7:23 mark — two made free throws from UCLA’s Londyn Jones. The Bruins were led by a team-high 14 points for Charisma Osborne.

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