When South Carolina shot just 14 percent in the second quarter and trailed by nine at halftime, it appeared all the momentum was on Stanford’s side.
But a key Stanford injury and a 15-1 run by the Gamecocks sparked South Carolina past the Cardinal 62-53 in the first NCAA Tournament national semifinal game Friday night at the American Airlines Center.
South Carolina (32-4) advances to the program’s first women’s national championship game at 5 p.m. Sunday.
“We feel like we’re always going to be in the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “With the league we played in, the SEC is a tough league, so there were familiar situations. We don’t get down on ourselves, we find a way and the team has an incredible focus on the end result.”
The Gamecocks, who led 14-12 after the first quarter, shot just 2 of 14 (14.3 percent) from the field in the second quarter and Stanford took advantage.
Stanford (32-6) trailed 14-10 with 1:57 left in the opening period before the Cardinal responded with the next 11 points. Senior Erica McCall bookended the run with a pair of layups, the latter giving Stanford a 21-14 lead with 6:10 left before halftime.
Cardinal senior captain Karlie Samuelson, the nation’s leading 3-point shooter at 49 percent, rolled her ankle with 4:30 left in the first half and was carried off by her teammates. The 6-foot guard returned in the second half — with a limp — and played limited minutes. She was held scoreless on just two field-goal attempts.
Stanford couldn’t get into a rhythm in the second half.
The Gamecocks got within 29-20 at the break. Stanford led 33-26 before South Carolina scored the next 11 points to take a 37-33 lead on Doniyah Cliney’s layup with 2:43 left in the third.
The Gamecocks increased their lead to 41-37 after three quarters.
Alanna Smith got Stanford within 53-50 with 2:10 to play, but South Carolina scored the next five points to force a Cardinal timeout and the Gamecocks secured the victory.
“First I’d like to congratulate Dawn and her South Carolina Gamecocks. They worked really hard and I think they had an aggressive game plan in the second half,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “They came out and did a much better job. Dawn and her staff have done a great job.”
VanDerveer added, “I’d also like to congratulate our team on a great season. I’m proud on how hard they fought. It was a struggle in the third with Karlie not being 100 percent and we never got in sync, but I’m exceedingly proud on how hard we played and we’ll hold our heads up high leaving Dallas.”
South Carolina outscored Stanford 42-24 in the second half. Allisha Gray scored a game-high 18 points and A’Ja Wilson finished with 13 points and a game-high 19 rebounds. The Gamecocks shot just 36.5 percent from the floor, but made 10 more free throws than the Cardinal.
“Biggest adjustment in the second half was speeding up the game. We had to figure them out and create, get easy buckets and get into transition,” Staley said. “We went into the zone in the middle of the third and it bothered them a little bit, they missed a lot of shots and we capitalized on it.”
Stanford shot 4 of 21 (19 percent) in the third quarter. The Cardinal were led by McCall’s 14 points and 14 rebounds, and Smith’s 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Women’s Final Four
Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN