South Carolina women stay perfect, surge past N.C. State 78-59 to reach NCAA title game


CLEVELAND — All-America center Kamilla Cardoso scored 22 points and unbeaten South Carolina emphatically kept its perfect season going, advancing to the championship game of the women's NCAA Tournament with a 78-59 victory over North Carolina State on Friday night.

The talented and tenacious Gamecocks (37-0) led by one at halftime before putting their full arsenal on display in the third quarter. They outscored the Wolfpack 29-6 to turn what had been a tense matchup into another blowout.

South Carolina will meet the winner of the second Final Four game between Iowa and UConn — a matchup featuring stars Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers that has created a buzz across America — for the national title on Sunday.

Aziaha James scored 20 points for No. 3 seed N.C. State (31-7), which knocked off a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed to get to Cleveland.

The Wolfpack had no shot against the Gamecocks, who were a unanimous No. 1 most of the season in the AP Top 25 and are aiming to become the first undefeated national champions since UConn in 2016.

Cardoso added 11 rebounds while playing just 23 minutes. She hurt her right leg late in the first half and returned in the third quarter, wearing a black compression sleeve on the leg. She did not play in the fourth.

Ashlyn Watkins was just as dominant inside for the Gamecocks, finishing with 20 rebounds along with eight points. Raven Johnson added 13 points.

N.C. State coach Wes Moore knew his team would have to play its best to have any chance of bringing down bigger, badder South Carolina.

On Thursday, he likened the semifinal to a David-vs.-Goliath matchup and promised his team would “put the stone in the sling and let it rip.” The Wolfpack needed more than stones.

Relishing the underdog role, the Wolfpack were hoping to replicate some of the magic the school’s conjured in 1983, when N.C. State, coached by Jim Valvano, shocked the hoop world by beating heavily favored Houston in the NCAA title game — an upset that helped define March madness.

But unlike a year ago, when South Carolina stormed into the Final Four in Dallas with an identical 36-0 record before losing to Clark and Iowa in the semis, the Gamecocks kept this season pristine.

The 6-foot-7 Cardoso made sure of it despite not moving as well as usual after the injury. South Carolina, which won by an average of 29.6 points this season, left no doubt after halftime, showing its dominance to a sellout crowd and a national TV audience.

Te-Hina Paopao and Johnson made 3-pointers as the Gamecocks quickly stretched their lead to 10, and they closed the quarter with a dizzying 17-1 run that quieted a rowdy N.C. State crowd.

While this unprecedented season of women’s basketball has been largely driven by Clark’s assault on the record books with her logo-distance 3-pointers and charisma inspiring fans from coast to coast, one team rose to the top.

It’s been South Carolina all along.

These Gamecocks have ruled the roost with equal amounts of depth, talent and swagger.

Staley wasn’t sure what type of team she had when the season began after having to replace five starters from last year’s squad. She also worried about her young team’s carefree attitude and whether this group would mature.

But not only did the Gamecocks bond and get themselves together, they’re one win from cementing South Carolina as a dynasty.

Cardoso, who declared for the WNBA draft earlier this week, began to establish herself inside in the second quarter. The Brazilian scored South Carolina’s first 12 points before Johnson’s jumper put the Gamecocks up 30-24.

But on South Carolina’s next possession, Cardoso tweaked her right ankle on a drive and came up limping. After struggling to get back on defense, she fouled to get a whistle so Staley could get her off the floor.