How emotional Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina women’s basketball relied on home crowd’s support

Kamilla Cardoso couldn’t hold off the tears ahead of tipoff Sunday.

Two hours later, after South Carolina women’s basketball routed North Carolina 88-41 to advance to its 10th straight Sweet 16, the senior center still wore the emotion on her face.

Cardoso, who has a year of eligibility remaining and is projected to be selected in the top five of the WNBA Draft, said she’s still undecided as to her next move.

Kamilla Cardoso - Wikipedia

But in her return from a one-game suspension, in what may be have been her last game at Colonial Life Arena, she helped the No. 1 Gamecocks (34-0) send off the fans in style.

“I don’t know if this is going to be my last game at home or not,” Cardoso said. “Just thinking about it, it could be my last game and I was a little emotional.”

Coach Dawn Staley said Cardoso struggled with her suspension, saying she felt like she let South Carolina down and was embarrassed not to be playing.

It was the home crowd’s cheering that helped bring her back to basketball.

“No matter how hard we tried to shake her out of it, only basketball, only getting back out there and running up and down and hearing the ovation from the crowd (could),” Staley said. “It even got her a little emotional at the beginning of the game. She’s a kind-hearted person and it was so much unlike her.”

The Gamecocks felt they had something to prove against the No. 8-seeded Tar Heels (20-13) after needing an 11-point comeback to beat them on Nov. 30 in Chapel Hill. This time, South Carolina used a 30-2 run in the first half to leave things in little doubt.

“We all knew how it felt during that game and we didn’t want to feel it again,” South Carolina senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said.

“We were shocked by their physicality and aggressiveness. We came out swinging first and I’m really proud of our team for doing that.”

Being prepared for North Carolina’s physicality was the theme within the Gamecocks’ locker room. Cardoso said her improved performance was due to being ready for the Tar Heels’ toughness. She had 12 points and 10 rebounds after scoring only six points in November.

South Carolina women's basketball win was emotional for Kamilla Cardoso

“Today we went into this game knowing it was going to be physical,” Cardoso said. “We just tried to stay within us and play South Carolina basketball. Don’t lower our standards.”

It was the 59th-straight home victory for South Carolina, extending a dominant streak dating back to Dec. 3, 2020. The FAMs, as Staley calls the home crowd, have been an integral part of that success.

The crowd helped lift South Carolina early, lighting up after freshman guard Tessa Johnson hit back-to back 3-pointers and freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley went behind-the-back on a pass to Paopao.

Johnson and Fulwiley starred in the first half as South Carolina jumped out to a 56-19 lead at halftime. Fulwiley finished with 20 points to lead the Gamecocks, while Johnson added 11.

The Gamecocks’ freshmen have quickly settled into postseason pace of play. Fulwiley has scored 37 points in two games, while Johnson bounced back from a scoreless outing Friday with a trio of first-half 3-pointers.

“Before a game we’re always like, we’re freshies, we’ve got this,” Johnson said. “Her having my back and me having her back, it’s a good feeling. Her succeeding – I want her to succeed.”

South Carolina moves onto the Sweet 16, where it will face the winner of Monday’s game between No. 4 Indiana (25-5) and No. 5 Oklahoma (23-9) on Friday in the Albany 1 Regional.

“We needed a performance like this,” Staley said. “Hopefully playing this good of basketball can be contagious throughout the rest of the way.”

Evan Gerike covers South Carolina women’s basketball for the Greenville News. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @EvanGerike.

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