COLUMBIA — Top seeded South Carolina again appeared to have a dominant regular season turn into a surprisingly early NCAA Tournament exit.
But that's when two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year A'ja Wilson rescued her team.
Wilson scored 21 points and had 11 rebounds, including the put back that gave South Carolina the lead for good and the free throws that sealed it, as South Carolina (29-4) beat No. 8 seed Arizona State 71-68 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night.
Wilson didn't touch the ball at all for two possessions as the Sun Devils (20-13) ended a run of 11 straight points to take a 68-67 lead with two minutes to go. But her teammates finally found her. She missed the first time down the floor, and again with 50 seconds to go. But Wilson fought, for the rebound, tipped it to herself and made the game-winning basket.
"I thought the ball was going to find who needed it at the time," Wilson said.
Wilson rescued what would have been another disappointing NCAA Tournament for one of the sport's new powers. South Carolina has been a No. 1 seed four years in a row but made the Final Four just once.
And the road out of the Stockton, California, region might have gotten harder. Starting guard Allisha Gray had to be carried off the court after hurting her knee late in the game. Coach Dawn Staley said doctors were looking at it after the game and she had no prognosis. The Gamecocks are already playing without Alaina Coates.
Arizona State led by as many as 11 and never trailed at all in the third quarter. But Kaela Davis scored six of her 20 points in the opening two minutes of the fourth quarter as the Gamecocks built a 67-57 lead with five minutes to go.
Sophie Bruner, who led Arizona State with 20 points and nine rebounds, missed a heavily contested 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied it.
"There was no one else we would rather have shot the ball," Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. "It was a tough shot, but I was thinking it was going in — she's had about eight at the buzzer."
And with the miss, South Carolina avoided possibly becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose before the Sweet 16 since Duke lost to Michigan State in 2009.
Turner Thorne called a timeout with 7:59 to go, immediately took several steps out on the court and yelled at a referee. She got a technical and South Carolina hit both free throws and got a three-point play to stretch a one-point lead to six.
The coach said she was angry that the officials called a foul on a screen on her team, then missed what she said looked like a more obvious similar call against the Gamecocks.
"At least I called a timeout," Turner Thorne said. "And you know what, I probably deserved it and that's fine. We had 23 fouls and we average 14 a game."
Turner Thorne and Staley both agreed Arizona State deserved higher than an eighth seed and this matchup shouldn't have happened in the second round.
"It's no secret I didn't think we should be playing a one seed in the second round on their home floor. And I think we proved that," Turner Thorne said.
Staley said these games are why she plays a tough non-conference schedule and pushes her team to dominate the SEC so they can get that top seed and home court for the first two NCAA Tournament games.
"I think the results would be different at another gym," Staley said.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils have made 12 NCAA tournaments under Turner Thorne, but have advanced to the Sweet 16 just three times. Arizona State had another good shooting day from outside, making 45.5 percent of its 3-pointers.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have been to six straight NCAA Tournaments with Staley, making it to the Sweet 16 five times. Sunday's attendance in Columbia was 8,276 people — well below South Carolina's nation-leading average of 12,853. The Gamecocks men's team was playing in the second round of the NCAAs too, about 100 miles away in Greenville.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks head out to Stockton, California, to play the winner of Monday's game between No. 4 seed Miami and 12th seeded Quinnipiac in a regional semifinal Saturday.