How will South Carolina respond in Elite 8 after another close call? What Dawn Staley said

ALBANY, N.Y. – Thirty-five games into the season, South Carolina women’s basketball still finds itself in a very fortunate position – as the competition gets better and victories get tighter, the Gamecocks still are able to learn lessons and win the game.

After a first half in which they looked like an unstoppable force, the No. 1 Gamecocks (35-0) nearly fumbled away a 22-point lead in a 79-75 Sweet 16 victory over No. 4 Indiana on Friday. Had the Hoosiers won it would have been the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.

“We’d rather not have a close game like this, of course, but I think it’ll be beneficial just because when the pressure is on, we have to be able to execute,” sophomore guard Raven Johnson said. “We’ll look back at this game and see that we were able to execute and defend.”

Dawn Staley on South Carolina with another close win in Sweet 16

The Gamecocks built a lead that felt insurmountable just past halftime before letting the Hoosiers take over the second half until the lead was down to two points. It took a dagger from Johnson with under a minute remaining to hold off the Hoosiers (26-6) for good.

“We have to lock in for the full 40 minutes,” senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said.

“We did get comfortable in the second half. That’s what happened and they were able to come back. At the end of the day, we just gotta be locked in because we know how it feels now, twice, and we don’t want to feel like that again.”

Letting off the gas has become a theme of late for South Carolina. It took a minor miracle for South Carolina to knock off Tennessee in the SEC Tournament championship.

How will South Carolina respond in Elite 8 after another close call? What Dawn  Staley said

Tennessee chipped away at a 23-point lead, and Kamilla Cardoso’s first career 3-pointer wasn’t on the Lady Vols’ radar when it banked in, staving off an upset bid.

On Friday, the Hoosiers never led, but they carried most of the momentum in the second half. After the Gamecocks held them off, Paopao said this game will help them refocus.

“We’ve got to learn through the wins,” Paopao said. “I think it does help us a lot because today is going to light a fire under our butt. We felt like this during Tennessee, and after that Tennessee game we were back to how we were. We were balling.”

Even as Indiana cut the lead down to two points in the last minute of the game, Johnson said she stayed calm because coach Dawn Staley was poised on the sideline. Johnson then hit a 3-pointer from the wing to help ice the victory.

Staley remained confident in her team’s ability down the stretch, a confidence gained through South Carolina working its way around these-near losses. She said she was mouthing, “shoot it,” on the sideline when Johnson caught the ball.

“I’ve only learned what I’ve already known, and that’s I’ve got a resilient basketball team that they don’t like losing,” Staley said. “They are able to make plays on both sides of the basketball through great play, through shoddy play, through having a lead. … We are the habits that we’ve created, good and bad.”

The Gamecocks are lucky – they’ve had a chance to learn how fragile an undefeated season can be, allowed the perfect record to be brought the edge, and yet are still moving on.

To accomplish that final goal by lifting a trophy in Cleveland, a game like Friday can’t happen again. But now South Carolina has a chance to lock in again when it faces No. 3 Oregon State at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“When we feel like this, when we feel like we haven’t been content or satisfied with our performance, we tend to perform really well the next day,” Paopao said. “I’m excited to see how we’re locked in tomorrow.”

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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