Eight months ago, when Stanford took on South Carolina in the Final Four, the game went down to the wire. In the last minute, then-sophomore forward Haley Jones knocked down a mid-range jump shot to give Stanford a one-point lead. On the ensuing sequence, South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston couldn’t connect from close range as time expired.
The Cardinal’s 66-65 victory granted them a berth in the final. Two days later, they won their first NCAA Championship since 1992, while the Gamecocks watched from home.
When the two juggernauts met on Tuesday for the first time since that Final Four game, their contest was again decided in the last minute. This time, it was No. 2 Stanford (8-3, 0-0 Pac-12) who suffered the heartbreak, as No. 1 South Carolina (12-0, 0-0 SEC) overcame an 18-point deficit to win 65-61.
Returning from a left leg injury, South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson was the difference maker on Tuesday. Henderson recorded 17 points and seven assists in her first game back, but it was her defense that stole the show.
“Defense was the key tonight,” Henderson told ESPN postgame. “Just being dedicated to defense. Defense wins ball games.”
Indeed, Henderson’s seven steals, five of which came in the third quarter, facilitated South Carolina’s second half comeback.
Stanford got off to a blistering hot start in the first half behind the performance of senior guard Lexie Hull. Hull put her full offensive repertoire on display in the opening period, scoring both on the inside and from behind the arc. When the first quarter buzzer sounded, Hull had scored 14 of her team-high 17 points and Stanford led 21-13.
On an early Stanford possession in the second quarter, senior guard Lacie Hull found herself trapped in defensive pressure as the shot clock ran down. With no other options, Hull faded to the side and threw up a desperation three with her left hand. Somehow, the basketball found the bottom of the net.
It seemed as if things were just going Stanford’s way in the first half. Sixth year guard Anna Wilson and junior guard Hannah Jump followed Hull’s circus shot with three-pointers of their own, as Stanford opened a 15-point lead. The Cardinal would finish the half up 42-28.
Jump connected on another three-point shot to begin the third quarter, but from that point forward, South Carolina dominated the period. Behind Henderson’s defense and Boston’s scoring, South Carolina cut into Stanford’s lead bit by bit.
When guard Brea Beal hit a three in the final minute of the period, the comeback was complete. The Gamecocks led 50-49 entering the fourth quarter.
The final period was agonizingly close. The two teams traded blows, but neither could gain much separation. With 1:41 remaining, Stanford led 60-59.
Jones missed a jumper, and Boston responded with a bucket in the paint to put the Gamecocks up 61-60. On the ensuing play, Wilson was called for an illegal screen, giving South Carolina possession with 0:47 left.
Desperately needing a stop, the Cardinal played strong team defense, forcing a missed jump shot by Henderson. Junior forward Ashten Prechtel secured the rebound, and head coach Tara VanDerveer called timeout with 0:24 on the clock.
Coming out of the timeout, the Cardinal had plenty of time to run their offense and take a quality shot for the win. Jones found sophomore forward Cameron Brink on the interior, who squared off against Boston.
With 0:17 to play, Brink stepped back and took a fadeaway over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-5 Boston. The ball glanced off the front rim, and South Carolina collected the rebound.
The two teams played the fouling game from that point on. After a pair of South Carolina free throws, Stanford had a chance to get within one with Brink at the line. However, junior forward Fran Belibi was called for a lane violation on Brink’s second shot, all but eliminating the Cardinal’s chances.
In the end, the Gamecocks prevailed 65-61 and completed their largest comeback in program history. Boston led all scorers with 18 points while also collecting 11 rebounds, five blocks and four steals.
Other than Hull, two Cardinal players recorded double-digit scoring: Belibi scored 12 off the bench and Jones tallied 11. Brink, the Cardinal’s leading scorer for the season, dealt with foul trouble for her second straight game. She played 17 minutes and scored just three points.
Stanford will look to rebound from this loss as it begins Pac-12 play on Friday. The Cardinal are set to take on Washington (5-3, 0-0 Pac-12) in Seattle with tip-off scheduled for 7:00 p.m. PT.