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Shipley: Team of destiny? South Carolina looks the part

The Gamecocks took Louisville’s best shot early and pulled away for their second championship appearance since 2017

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Semifinal-Louisville vs South Carolina
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Destanni Henderson (3) dribbles the ball against the Louisville Cardinals in the second half on Friday in the Final Four semifinals of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Matt Krohn/USA TODAY Sports
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South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is something of a fatalist. Whatever is going to happen, she said in the runup to Friday’s NCAA women’s basketball semifinals at Target Center, already has been written.

The subject came up when a reporter on Thursday asked her about the Gamecocks’ loss to Stanford in their Final Four opener last spring.

“Our paths are divinely ordered,” she told reporters on Thursday, “so we’ve got to take the good and the bad and the disappointments just like we take the celebratory experiences.”

This seems to have trickled down to her team. After advancing to the national title game with a 72-59 victory over Louisville in Friday’s early game, Gamecocks center Aliyah Boston echoed her coach.

“That’s just a reminder to not go into the game with any kind of nerves because it’s already written,” she said.

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Boston had something to do with it, too – the consensus national player of the year finished with game-highs of 23 points and 18 rebounds – but there might be something to the preordination angle because the Gamecocks were cool, calm and collected in their biggest game of the season, playing with the aplomb of a team that already knew what was going to happen.

Louisville, on the other hand, needed some time to get its bearings. Playing in their fourth Final Four since 2009, and aiming for their third appearance in the national title game, the Cardinals started with air balls and blocked shots, quickly falling behind 11-2.

It appeared the Gamecocks had a chance to put Louisville away early, but the Cardinals used a 12-0 run to take a 22-19 lead with 6:18 left in the first half and it was quickly a game. And then it quickly wasn’t. South Carolina answered without so much as a timeout.

“Sometimes when the lights come on, it just takes you a little bit longer to just kind of get your equilibrium,” Staley said, “and once they did, they ended up roaring back.”

But the Gamecocks (34-2) answered with a 10-2 run punctuated by Saniya Rivers’ steal and layup and never trailed again.

“I could have called a timeout,” Staley said, “… But when you know why it’s happening and you’ve got an experienced team like we have, we just let the game settle in and corrected it on the fly.”

That’s confidence, in your team or the fates – probably both. This is South Carolina’s third Final Four appearance since 2017, and they won it all that season. This year, the Gamecocks have been ranked No. 1 wire to wire and are one of three No. 1 seeds playing this weekend in Minneapolis.

It wasn’t as if Louisville (29-5) played poorly. Emily Engstler finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and four steals, and Kianna Smith kept the game close with eight first-quarter points when the rest of her teammates were struggling to find the rim. Maybe it would have been a different game had some of the Cardinals’ early shots fallen, but most didn’t even hit the rim.

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“I always say if we’re going to lose a game, I want it to be because we just missed shots,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “We had some great looks. We had some that went in and out at crunch time.”

True, but South Carolina made Louisville work for just about every shot it took. The Gamecocks, on the other hand, got open on the perimeter for six 3-pointers and were able to go low to Boston when they absolutely needed a bucket.

At last year’s Final Four, South Carolina lost to eventual champion Stanford, 66-65, in the semifinals. But Staley swore this week she only thinks of that game when she’s asked about it.

“It is there as part of your journey,” she said this week. “So good, bad, or indifferent, it’s a part of who we are. Like it was supposed to happen.”

The Gamecocks played Friday as if they were supposed to win.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Semifinal-Louisville vs South Carolina
South Carolina Gamecocks guard Brea Beal (12) dribbles the ball as UConn Huskies guard Nika Muhl (10) defends during the second half on Friday in the Final Four semifinals of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Matt Krohn/USA TODAY Sports

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