Zia Cooke and her South Carolina teammates were hot from the outside and rode that solid shooting to reach the Elite Eight.
Cooke scored 17 points, hitting five of six 3-point attempts, to lead top-seed South Carolina to a 76-65 win over fifth-seeded Georgia Tech on Sunday and reach the Elite Eight.
“Our offense carried us today with our ability to hit layups and stretch the floor and hit some 3s,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “Hope it continues to get better. You got some great programs here that can put a lot of points on the scoreboard.”
It’s the third time in the past four women’s NCAA Tournaments that the Gamecocks have at least reached the regional finals. South Carolina won the national championship in 2017.
After going scoreless in the first half, Aliyah Boston had the first seven points in the third quarter as South Carolina (25-4) went on a 14-6 run to start the period. That lengthened a four-point halftime lead to double digits. The All-America sophomore forward finished with nine points.
“This team is resilient and determined and focused on the task at hand,” Staley said. “We found ourselves with Aliyah Boston in foul trouble early on and this team pivoted well today. We can afford ourselves that situation when we’re hitting shots.”
The Yellow Jackets (17-9) made a run in the fourth quarter to get within 69-63, but five consecutive points — the last coming on a 3-pointer from Cooke with 3 minutes left — sealed the win.
Lotta-Maj Lahtinen scored 20 points to lead Georgia Tech.
“We scored enough points to win, they just killed us in the paint today. Good gosh, they had like 44 points in the paint,” Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner said. “They’re big, they’re long, they’re lengthy. … South Carolina did what they needed to do. They played how they’re built.”
The Gamecocks await the winner of Maryland and Texas in the Hemisfair Region final Tuesday night.
Staley and Fortner, have a long history together going back to their days with USA Basketball.
Fortner was the head coach of the 2000 Olympic team that won gold in Sydney, Australia, and Staley was her point guard.
Staley’s success as a coach is no surprise to Fortner, who still calls her one of the best team leaders she’s ever coached. The South Carolina coach praised Fortner’s positivity, which is something Georgia Tech needed when they hired her in 2019. The Yellow Jackets were coming off a rocky end to the tenure of former coach MaChelle Joseph and needed stability.
Fortner provided that and had Georgia Tech reach its second-ever Sweet 16 in her second season. The Yellow Jackets also reached the regional semifinals in 2012.
“My main takeaway is this team has a really incredibly bright future,” Fortner said. “We’ve got to put some work in in the offseason and we’ve got to get better individually so we can get into this game next year and have a different outcome. But I’m very proud how we competed this year and got through with the pandemic, stayed safe and were able to complete (the year).”
They hung with the Gamecocks for the opening 20 minutes in a well-played first half. South Carolina built a 10-point lead before Georgia Tech scored the final six points of the half to only trail 39-35 at the break. Both teams shot well in the opening 20 minutes, especially from deep. The Yellow Jackets only missed one of their six 3-point attempts and the Gamecocks were 5-for-8 from deep.
The Gamecocks finished the game 8-for-14 from behind the arc and the Yellow Jackets were 6-for-12.
Staley’s sister Tracey Underwood was in the stands for the game watching the Gamecocks play. Underwood was diagnosed with leukemia last year and Staley dove into the fight against the disease, calling doctors and medical centers across the country to get her help. Underwood received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from her brother Lawrence. Staley’s now using her platform to raise awareness for the need for more Black donors and allay fears about becoming donors.
“My sister being here is an awesome thing,” Staley said. “I look forward to hearing her call my name out. I know once I hear it I give her a little Philly nod saying I hear you, but can’t see you especially if I don’t have my glasses on. It’s great she made the trip out here last night. Got up early got some breakfast. She got into her game-day routine and was good we got to share this moment with her. We hope we can continue that so her stay can be extended.”
MISSING IN ACTION
South Carolina was still without senior guard Lele Grissett, who suffered a right ankle injury in the SEC Tournament. She was getting around on a scooter and was at the end of the pregame introduction line doing handshakes and dances with her teammates as they were announced.
South Carolina’s reserves outscored Georgia Tech’s 21-3 led by Laeticia Amihere, who had 15 points and seven rebounds.
“In the tournament right now, we got to come up big because the bench is a big part of who we are,” Amihere said. “And going deep in our bench is so important, especially down the stretch right now.”