HOW SWEET: Gamecocks edge Florida State in down-to-the-wire showdown, advance to Sweet 16

HOW SWEET: Gamecocks edge Florida State in down-to-the-wire showdown, advance to Sweet 16

By Josh Hyber | Photo by Jenny Dilworth

CHARLOTTE — The third time was the charm for South Carolina, and it was just as sweet for the Gamecocks as it was the first two times.

South Carolina ousted Florida State in the 2015 and 2017 NCAA Tournaments, and it kept the odd year trend alive with a 72-64 victory over the Seminoles on Sunday in the 2019 tournament’s second round. 

On Sunday at Halton Arena on the campus of UNC Charlotte, the No. 4 seed Gamecocks (23-9) edged No. 5 seed Florida State (24-9) in a game that was tied with 4:08 to go. It’s the sixth year in a row the Gamecocks have advanced to the Sweet 16.

The Gamecocks advance to play on Saturday, March 30 against the winner of Monday’s matchup between No. 1 seed Baylor — a team it lost to 94-69 on Dec. 2 at Colonial Life Arena — and No. 8 seed California.

“It’s about sustaining and keeping your program in a place where you are competing for national championships, [so] when you have that, it certainly feels good,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said.

“This is where players are made. You are going to see some great players rise to that challenge. I don’t think any of our players are afraid of that. What we have been able to do all year long is compete in practice and compete against best league in the country.

“We are prepped to play on the biggest stages.”

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Mikiah Herbert Harrigan led the Gamecocks with 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Alexis Jennings had 16 points and seven rebounds, while Te’a Cooper added 13 points, six rebounds and four assists.

“It feels great. I haven’t been anywhere in the last two years, so this is awesome for me,” Cooper, who reached the Elite Eight as a freshman at Tennessee, said about advancing. “I’m pretty sure that [South Carolina is] used to going further, but this great for me.”

Kiki goes for 20

It was a team effort that paved the way for the Gamecocks on Sunday.

Jennings converted an old-fashioned three-point play and then banked in a layup on a layoff from Cooper to give South Carolina a 44-35 lead minutes into the third quarter.

But the Seminoles kept pace.

SC’s lead shrunk to one after FSU went on a 9-1 run highlighted by a Kiah Gillespie straight-on 3 and Nausia Woolfolk free throws to cut the deficit to 45-44.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore ended a 4:32 stretch without a South Carolina field goal and Herbert Harrigan blocked a shot and sank two free throws that gave the Gamecocks a 49-44 lead with 2:21 to go in the third quarter.

Herbert Harrigan had blocks on three of four possessions during the run — she was called for a foul on a would-be fourth. The junior was in the right place at the right time moments later when she grabbed a Cuevas-Moore miss and put home a layup to give the Gamecocks a 52-48 lead with 49 seconds to go in the third.

But the lead was down to just one at the quarter’s end.

Jennings extended it to three, at 54-51, at the 7:50 mark, then five, at 56-51, with 6:57 to go. Florida State clamored for an offensive foul as Gillespie held her face.

None was given.

Jennings then scored on a put-back to give the Gamecocks a 58-53 lead with 5:34 to play, but FSU’s Morgan Jones tied it at 60 with 4:08 to go. 

“Alexis was huge. I think Alexis looks for opportunities to shine in those moments, and she really came through for us,” Staley said.

Sensational defensive and a rebound from Harris on a one on one with Morgan Jones gave the Gamecocks possession out of a timeout with 2:31 to go.

The Garnet and White took advantage, as Cooper found Jennings for an and-one layup that gave the Gamecocks a 63-60 lead with 2:13 to go in regulation.

FSU’s Nicki Ekhomu answered with a jumper with 1:56 to play to cut the Gamecock lead to one, at 63-62, but South Carolina answered with two Victaria Saxton free throws after the freshman forward came down with a crucial offensive rebound seconds before the shot clock expired.

“Before I went out there, coach just told me to go out and get all the rebounds,” Saxton said. “So I went out there and tried to get every rebound I could. … And when it was time for the free throws, everyone on the team was just telling me to shoot just shoot the free throws and not worry about it and think about it.”

When asked if she was nervous, the freshman smiled and simply offered a one-word answer: “No.”

Florida State called timeout, down 65-62, with 1:09 to play.

Gillespie scored on a layup after the Seminoles grabbed two offensive rebounds on the possession to trim the Noles’ deficit to 65-64 with 41.9 seconds to play, but — on a play called Miami Vice — Harris converted a three-point play to give the Gamecocks a 68-64 lead with 14 seconds later. 

“Ty did a great job at executing and making it look real good out there,” Staley said.

A Cooper free throw iced it. 

South Carolina was propelled by two 10-point quarters in the first half — a 10-point first from Cooper and a 10-point second from Herbert Harrigan. In all, the pair scored 23 of the Gamecocks’ 37 (62 percent) first-half points. 

Despite Florida State grabbing 11 offensive rebounds, forcing seven turnovers and leading by as many as eight points in the opening 20 minutes, the game remained close. The teams traded the lead six times, both making 13 field goals, blocking two shots and swiping three steals. 

FSU’s eight-point lead came at 18-10 just six minutes and 42 seconds into regulation.

But Cooper answered with a personal 7-0 run in just over a minute: a reverse layup on a four-on-one, a 3 from the left side and a pull-up jumper to pull SC to within one.

“The ball was getting kicked out and it was finding me,” Cooper said. “Ty was finding me. My teammates were finding me and I was just hitting shots.”

Foreshadowing what was to come, Herbert Harrigan tied the score at 20 with a straight-on 3 to beat the first-quarter buzzer. 

The teams traded baskets before Herbert Harrigan — who missed the first half of the Gamecocks’ opening-round win over Belmont for an undisclosed reason — went on her run. The 6-2 junior gave the Gamecocks the lead back, at 27-26, then extended to 29-26 with two free throws after a Jennings block. She then sank one from the right wing to give the Gamecocks a 31-28 lead. 

She continued the spurt with a jumper from the short right elbow and two free throws to give the Gamecocks a 37-30 lead, one the team took into halftime.

“I don’t think we put that pressure on ourselves and say, ‘Oh, if we don’t go to the Sweet 16 it will be the end of a streak,’ Staley said. “… I stay in the moment. I don’t go into the future. It’s just about the here and now.

“Let’s just win today.”

They did that Sunday, and because of it are four wins away from a national title.