GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — For the second straight year, South Carolina found itself trailing late against North Carolina and staring at an early NCAA Tournament exit despite its No. 1 seed.
This time, Tiffany Mitchell and the Gamecocks found a way to regroup, rally and advance.
Mitchell drove to the basket and scored with 4.2 seconds left to help South Carolina edge North Carolina 67-65 on Friday night in the Sweet 16, earning the program’s second trip to a regional final.
Mitchell finished with 18 points for the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks (33-2), who had to survive a tense finish to push past the Tar Heels in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game.
“It is nerve-wracking (late) because you don’t want your season to end,” coach Dawn Staley said. “But I thought our team was really resilient. … We were poised and we didn’t feel the moment in a way that we got too high emotionally.”
The Gamecocks could’ve been feeling the opposite, too, as North Carolina pushed ahead and led 63-60 entering the last 90 seconds.
Instead, the Gamecocks responded with tough-minded play. There was a 3-pointer from Olivia Gaines that bounced around the rim before dropping through the net to tie it near the 1-minute mark.
There was a defensive stop followed by two free throws from Alaina Coates with 46.1 seconds left for a 65-63 lead after a tussle for a rebound.
Then, after UNC’s Jessica Washington scored to tie it, there was Mitchell’s final drive.
“It was kind of emotional but we stayed the course and kept our heads,” Mitchell said. “We knew North Carolina was going to give us their best push and we knew they had runs in them, so we just had to answer them and just keep our head.”
Fourth-seeded UNC (26-9) had one more chance, but freshman Jamie Cherry’s desperation runner hit all backboard as the horn sounded to start the Gamecocks’ oncourt celebration.
South Carolina had reached the Elite Eight once before, losing to Duke in 2002. Now Staley’s Gamecocks are back to face the Arizona State-Florida State winner on Sunday to go to the Final Four.
As for the Tar Heels, they were left to lament coming up a play or two short of closing out South Carolina. Most notably, there was a hurried missed shot from Coleman with 1:24 left, a loose offensive rebound on a missed free throw that set up Gaines’ tying 3, then a missed contested 3 from Washington that led to Stephanie Mavunga fouling out while battling for the rebound underneath to set up Coates’ free throws.
“I still think that we’re the better team,” Mavunga said. “I just feel as if, like I said, if there was just one possession here or there and it would have been a different team celebrating.”
Latifah Coleman scored 10 of her 15 after halftime to lead UNC.
“They are a great team,” coach Sylvia Hatchell said, “but I thought we were a great team tonight, too.”
UNC: Allisha Gray scored 12 points, while Mavunga had 10 points and 13 rebounds before fouling out while battling Coates underneath in the final minute. … UNC shot 37 percent. … UNC made 11 of 14 free throws after halftime. … Washington’s drive with 27.2 seconds left to tie it was UNC’s final basket of the season.
South Carolina: Tina Roy scored 12, including three second-half 3-pointers. … Gaines’ tying 3 was her only basket. … The Gamecocks shot 52 percent after halftime.
Last year’s Sweet 16 meeting was on the opposite coast at Stanford. The Gamecocks were a No. 1 seed and the Tar Heels were a No. 4, but UNC won 65-58 behind star freshman Diamond DeShields to end the Gamecocks’ 29-win season.
This time, they were both much closer to home and DeShields was gone after an abrupt transfer. This game was in the Tar Heels’ home state roughly an hour from the Chapel Hill campus, but the Gamecocks had a larger and louder group of fans in the building — Staley said nine busses’ worth — for this one.
COATES’ BIG NIGHT
Coates scored 18 points, including those two key free throws, and had 10 rebounds with a 10-for-10 performance at the foul line.
North Carolina: Season is complete.
South Carolina: Plays the Arizona State-Florida State winner Sunday.
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