Gamecocks rally to beat Stanford, advance to national title game

Gamecocks rally to beat Stanford, advance to national title game

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Media Relations**

DALLAS — As the first half wound to a close, South Carolina was reeling, losing by nine points in its national semi-final game against Stanford and head coach Dawn Staley just wanted to get her team to the locker room. 

Staley was anxious to fix what was broken with her No. 4 Gamecocks. 

"We were lucky to be down nine," she said. "I just wanted to get my kids in the locker room at halftime. Timeouts weren't long enough to get our message across. We needed to get into halftime and kind of exhale a little bit."

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They did, regrouping and going on an 11-0 third-quarter run to regain the lead and propel them to a 62-53 win and a chance to play for the national championship Sunday night.  

The Gamecocks, which trailed 29-20 at the half and shot just 26 percent in the first half, dominated the second half, overcoming the nine-point deficit and turning the tide on No. 6 Stanford. 

What did they change?

"Our energy level," said junior forward Kaela Davis said. "We didn't do anything different. We had really low energy in the first half and we had to fix that."

What did Staley say to her team? 

"She told us we can't play at the level that we are at. We had to find a way to get ourselves going."

"Coach told us we had to treat every possession like it's our last," Wilson said. "That's what you have to do at this time of year."

Sparked by junior guard Allisha Davis, who led the Gamecocks with 18 points, and All-American A'ja Wilson, who began to dominate down low, South Carolina turned around their poor shooting performance and began to dominate the boards. They also turned up the defensive pressure on a Stanford team that seemed to have its way with South Carolina in the first half. 

"That's exactly why we have built our reputation on defense," Staley said. "You might have bad shooting nights at times, and this was one of them. 

"… In the second half, I thought we just forced our will from a defensive standpoint and sped the game up and got to playing at a pace that benefitted our style of play."

"Our energy was down and we just needed to play to our tempo, start pushing tempo," Gray said. "Once we got that, we got on our run."

Davis, the MVP of the Stockton Regional, had a tough shooting night against Stanford, hitting just two of 15 shots as the Cardinal closed off the driving lanes. But Davis said her team had the right attitude and said all the right things at half-time to turn the game around. 

"There was a lot of talking. No one came in here and sulked. We communicated and tried to figure out what we needed to better in the second half," Davis said. 

And despite a poor first-half offensively, Davis was one of the players who stepped up, in the locker room and defensively. 

"Teams have been packing the paint and trying to make us hit outside shots, and shots weren't falling," she said. "I told the team, I said, 'Look at this ginormous scoreboard, we are shooing 8 of 31 or something from the field. Just slow down and hit shots." 

Despite one of their worst first halves of the season, Staley was confident her team would turn things around and rally. She had seen it before. 

"We are always going to be in the game," she said. "In the league we play in, the SEC, it is a tough league and we have been in familiar situations and we don't fret it and we don't get down on ourselves. We just find ways and our team has incredible focus on the end result. 

"You are going to have runs, they are going to happen. But we don't hang our heads … A good team is going to bounce back from adverse situations and our team has done that all season." 

"No matter what position we are in, we are going to keep fighting," Davis said. 

Stanford dominated the first half, shutting off the driving lanes and denying Wilson the ball in the low post. The Cardinal shot 46 percent and controlling the boards. A 9-0 run in the second quarter put them up 21-15 and they led 29-20 at the half. 

But Stanford was stunned by South Carolina's third-quarter comeback. A three by Bianca Cuevas-Moore capped the 11-0 run and gave the Gamecocks their first lead since the first quarter at 35-33. 

Wilson, who had just four first-half points, began to find room in the paint. She scored nine second-half points and seemingly grabbed every rebound, finishing with an astounding 19 rebounds. After getting out-rebounded in the first half, South Carolina wound up with a 43-41 advantage on the boards. Gray added eight rebounds to go with her 18 points. 

"My teammates really rallied around me," Wilson said. "Kept positive thoughts into my mind. Coach Staley kept positive thoughts into my mind. I think that kind of helped me overcome the way the game was going for me."

South Carolina led 41-37 at the end of the third quarter and withstood a late Stanford rally. The Cardinal cut the lead to 47-43, but Gray and Wilson took over, stretching the lead back to seven. Gray's three-point play with four minutes remaining gave South Carolina it's biggest lead at 53-45. Wilson and Tyasha Harris then sealed it form the free throw line. 

South Carolina will now play for the national championship for the first time in school history, adding to Staley's incredible legacy. 

"She has a long, long list of accomplishments," Davis said. "For us to be able to be in this position and kind of add to that, it means everything. That makes this moment and this day and this game that much more special."