GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley climbed the ladder, snipped the final strand of net and raised it as thousands of garnet-clad fans cheered.
Taking in the scene, she mouthed one word: “Unbelievable.”
Believe it. Staley and the Gamecocks are headed to their first Final Four.
Tiffany Mitchell scored seven of her 21 points in the final 2 minutes, and South Carolina beat Florida State 80-74 on Sunday in the Greensboro Regional final.
“It put South Carolina on the map,” Staley said. “The regular season that we had, the success that we’ve had in (the Southeastern) Conference, when you hurdle over being a regional champion and going to the Final Four, it puts your name in history. So it was a history-making game for us.”
Alaina Coates finished with 14 points, A’ja Wilson added 10 and Asia Dozier hit four free throws in the final 20 seconds for the top-seeded Gamecocks (34-2).
Playing from behind for most of the day, they shot 61 percent while rallying to win their seventh straight and keep the best season in school history going.
Next stop: Tampa, Florida, to face Notre Dame, the top-seeded winner of the Oklahoma City Regional, on April 5.
“I just remember last night watching the Kentucky men doing it, and thinking, ‘That could be us tomorrow afternoon,'” Mitchell said. “To actually be in this moment and experience it means a lot.”
Leticia Romero scored 13 points and Brittany Brown had 12 for the second-seeded Seminoles (32-5). The best season in program history ended after they set the school record for wins and reached their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
“Of course, we fell short of our goals, but we made history,” Brown said. “I will remember this forever.”
There were five ties and seven lead changes in the final 10-plus minutes. The last came when Mitchell’s drive made it 69-67 with just under 2 minutes left.
The Gamecocks forced Brown to miss a jumper before Mitchell put them up by five with a corner 3-pointer with about 1:15 remaining — on a play that Staley said eventually will be renamed “Mitch” after her.
“Tiffany Mitchell is the person we want the ball in her hands when we need a basket,” Staley said.
Maegan Conwright pulled Florida State to 72-69 with two free throws with 58.3 seconds left. Mitchell then got the rebound of her missed jumper in the lane, drew a foul and hit both free throws with 27.9 seconds left to restore the Gamecocks’ five-point lead.
Dozier’s free throws each came immediately after Florida State pulled within two points, and Khadijah Sessions stole the ball from Conwright and hit a layup at the buzzer to make it a six-point game.
Adut Bulgak finished with 10 points for Florida State, which never trailed during the first 30 minutes of this meeting of teams that until now had combined to reach two Elite Eights but had advanced no deeper.
South Carolina lost to Duke in a 2002 regional final and Florida State fell to Connecticut at this stage in 2010.
“To play that many minutes leading … the No. 1 team in the country at one point, they weren’t afraid,” Florida State coach Sue Semrau said of her team. “They had so much courage.”
The Seminoles briefly led by 10 in the first half before Mitchell gave the Gamecocks their first lead with a driving layup that made it 55-54 with 10 minutes left.
After that, neither team led by more than five until that last-second layup.
“I knew we were always in the game,” Mitchell said. “We played behind plenty of times. We never doubted for a second that we weren’t going to lose this game, and that’s the mentality you need against a great team like Florida State.”
Part of the problem for Florida State was foul trouble. Conwright, the Seminoles’ top defensive player whose steal sealed the Sweet 16 win over Arizona State, picked up her fourth foul with 14:24 to play. They also had two players — Brown and guard Emiah Bingley — foul out. They were the first Florida State players to foul out since Bulgat did it Feb. 22 in a win at Boston College.
Florida State: Each of the Seminoles’ final three losses this season came in the state of North Carolina. In addition to this one, they lost at UNC on Feb. 12 and also were beaten by Notre Dame in the Greensboro Coliseum in the ACC title game March 8. … Romero, who scored a career-best 21 points in the Sweet 16 win over Arizona State, was 5 of 14 while shooting with a taped right hand and wrist.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were outrebounded for just the second time all season. Florida State held a 33-28 advantage on the boards. … Coates, selected as the most outstanding player of the regional, finished 6 of 6 from the field.
Florida State: Season over.
South Carolina: Will play Notre Dame on April 5 in the Final Four in Tampa, Florida.
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