No. 1 S.C. rolls, takes unbeaten record into final

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CLEVELAND — There would be no early trip home from this Final Four for South Carolina. Kamilla Cardoso made sure of that.

Cardoso dominated inside, with 22 points and 11 rebounds, and the Gamecocks used a third-quarter blitz to clinch their spot in the national championship game on Friday night, beating NC State 78-59. South Carolina (37-0) is the first team to enter the national championship game undefeated since UConn in 2016.

Last season, South Carolina entered the Final Four as the heavy favorite, undefeated and on a quest to win its second straight national championship. But the Gamecocks lost to Iowa in the semifinals, a heartbreaking defeat that returning South Carolina players have not forgotten. Repeatedly during pregame interviews, they said they never wanted to have that feeling again, that they would never overlook another opponent.

It was clear nothing would deny the Gamecocks this time around, not even an injury scare to Cardoso. After Cardoso scored 12 of the team’s 14 points in the second quarter, she appeared to twist her ankle and land on her knee when she got tangled with River Baldwin with 1:39 to go before halftime.

Cardoso went to the locker room immediately, and South Carolina took a 32-31 lead into the break. But once the second half began, there was Cardoso leading the way and helping to facilitate the offense. She did not have to dominate inside in the third quarter because the jumpers that the Gamecocks missed in the first half started to go in, one after another.

South Carolina opened the quarter on a 16-5 run, and NC State seemed powerless to stop it. The Wolfpack seemed disjointed and out of sorts as South Carolina hit one shot after another. When Tessa Johnson hit a 3-pointer to make it 51-36, coach Dawn Staley turned to her bench and shouted, “Yeah!”

Then another 3 fell, this one from Te-Hina Paopao, as Raven Johnson led a dance celebration on the bench. By the time Bree Hall hit a 3 to end the third quarter, South Carolina had outscored NC State 29-6 to take control of the game. The Gamecocks made five of their nine 3-point attempts in the quarter after making only two in the first half.

Meanwhile, the six points NC State scored were tied for the second-fewest in any quarter in a women’s Final Four game since quarters were introduced rather than halves in 2016. Saniya Rivers, who transferred to NC State from South Carolina, could never get going for the Wolfpack, struggling all night with her shot and finishing 2-of-11 for five points.

Baldwin, who felt hopeful about her matchup with Cardoso leading into the game, struggled to do much of anything and went 5-of-12 for 12 points.

NC State had no interior presence in the game, and that became a huge advantage for South Carolina. Cardoso made 10 of her 12 field goals. In addition to Cardoso’s presence, Ashlyn Watkins grabbed 20 rebounds — the fifth player in Final Four history to record 20 rebounds in a game.

As the final minute ticked away, the South Carolina contingent stood and waved their towels and pom poms, anticipating the moment. The celebration on the South Carolina bench was muted. They would be the first to tell you: The job is not done.

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