When South Carolina found out Friday night that their opponent would be Syracuse on Sunday, they already had first hand knowledge of the Orange. Earlier in the season, the Gamecocks played the Orange in a preseason tournament in the Bahamas. South Carolina had to rally from a ten point deficit with a little under seven minutes left to beat then No. 22 Syracuse 67-63 in the Junkanoo Jam.
The Orange had played a zone in that game, packing it in against the Gamecocks' bigs, daring South Carolina to hit from the outside. The Gamecocks hit on nine of twenty six three pointers and were actually out-rebounded by the smaller Orange 50-35.
So Dawn Staley and her team knew what was cut out for them Sunday evening. They were going to have to have their outside game working against's Cuse's zone and do their best to contend for rebounds against the tenacious Orange.
When my color analyst, aka my older son, Matthew and I got to Colonial Life Arena about ninety minutes before game time, we saw a large crowd standing outside of the arena, full of umbrellas due to the light rain falling. I believe due to NCAA rules, they were not allowing fans to enter the arena until an hour before game time.
It was my fourth NCAA Tournament and my second NCAA Women's Tournament. My first women's tournament had actually been in 2001, when my good friend and now Seton Hall Women's Basketball Head Coach, Anthony Bozzella, took his LIU Brooklyn team to the NEC Championship in 2001. His reward was to face UConn in Storrs in the First Round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament and I was there as his team lost to the #1 seed Huskies. It's ironic that in Coach Bozzella's second ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season, he would again be in Storrs (Seton Hall lost a close first round game to Rutgers last night).
Once 6:00 PM hit, a loud roar came from the crowd as they finally let the fans into the arena. The crowd line moved at a reasonable pace and we got into the arena rather quickly, then along with the rest of the large herd, got through the ticket takers. I decided to splurge for a $15 NCAA program, which is actually a nice keepsake. Every team that made the tournament has their own page in the program with a team photo, roster, statistics leaders, team record and results. It was cool to see Seton Hall and South Carolina's teams in there.
The Gamecocks extended the lead to eleven, 20-9 on a Mitchell three pointer. They extended the lead to thirteen, 27-14 as Alaina Coates hit three free throws as the smaller Orange couldn't contain her in the paint, despite their zone. The Orange would cut the deficit to ten, 27-17 on a Brianna Butler three pointer. Butler and Petersen combined to score fifteen of Syracuse's first seventeen points.
The Gamecocks would actually extend the lead even further, thanks to unselfish basketball and nice passing. South Carolina would have assists on their next six baskets, capped by an assist by Dozier on Aleigsha Welch layup to make the score 51-23. The Gamecocks would enter the half up 53-25. Their unselfish play over the first twenty minutes rendered Syracuse's zone useless.
The start of the second half saw the Gamecocks hold serve and actually extend the lead to thirty one, 63-32, on an Elem Ibiam jumper. With about ten minutes left, the lead was still twenty eight, 71-43. Syracuse would cut the deficit down to twenty, 85-65 on a Peterson three pointer with 4:43 left. But South Carolina would actually extend the margin over the last few minutes, holding the Orange to three points the rest of the way, eventually winning 97-68.
Finally, the Gamecocks showed a great amount of balance, with six players scoring in double figures. Coates and Mitchell each had fourteen points, Wilson and Welch each had thirteen points and Dozier and Bianca Cuevas, an absolute blur when on the court, each had twelve points.
The Gamecocks now move onto the Sweet Sixteen and a likely rematch with North Carolina, who defeated South Carolina in last year' Sweet Sixteen (that's if the Tar Heels get by the Buckeyes of Ohio State tomorrow). But it seems the Gamecocks like having rematches with opponents. The Tar Heels might want to ask the Orange about that.