South Carolina books berth in Stanford Regional's Sweet 16 with 78-69 win over Oregon State

March 26, 2014 - 12:30am
Aleighsa Welch notched a game-high-tying 21 points Tuesday to propel South Carolina past Oregon State, 78-69, and into the Stanford Regional Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Women's Basketball Tournament. (File photo by Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina/Courtesy South Carolina Athletics Media Relations)

Aleighsa Welch notched a game-high-tying 21 points Tuesday to propel South Carolina past Oregon State, 78-69, and into the Stanford Regional Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Division 1 Women's Basketball Tournament. (File photo by Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina/Courtesy South Carolina Athletics Media Relations)

South Carolina 78, Oregon State 69

South Carolina, the top seed in the Stanford Regional of the 2014 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament, used superior speed and athleticism to book its berth in the Sweet 16 with a 78-69 second-round victory over ninth-seeded Oregon State in Seattle, Wash. on Tuesday night. The main question coming into Tuesday night’s game was whether Oregon State’s positionally sound defense and overall attention to detail would thwart South Carolina’s relentless energy and activity. The Beavers weren’t the quicker team, but their basketball IQ –- evident in defensive master classes in both the PAC-12 Tournament and the NCAA first round against Middle Tennessee –- suggested that they still had a chance to beat South Carolina to various spots on the floor. If Oregon State did that, it had a chance to win.

Lots of nerves filled Seattle’s Alaska Airlines Arena in the early going. South Carolina not only settled down sooner than Oregon State; its style of play was more conducive to a good start. Center Elem Ibiam became the main threat for South Carolina in the first few minutes of play, but only because Tiffany Mitchell was able to create with the dribble and get the attention of Oregon State center Ruth Hamblin. At 6-6, Hamblin can affect shots with her size, but Mitchell’s dribble penetration was able to pull Hamblin out of position, giving Ibiam high-quality looks at the basket.

As the half continued, South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch became the go-to scoring option for the Gamecocks. She was able to dive to the bucket and catch passes at angles that put her half a step ahead of Oregon State defenders. Hamblin was usually not in a position to help, and it was this basic pattern that carried South Carolina to a 34-25 halftime lead, at least at the offensive end of the floor.

When Oregon State had the ball, the simple reality of a game between a number-one seed and a number-nine seed became all too apparent. On some possessions, South Carolina hounded Oregon State into turnovers. On others, the Beavers committed unforced errors. It was the other batch of possessions that separated the two teams, however.

Basketball can be decided by the right X-and-O adjustments from a coaching staff, but the trajectory of the first half for Oregon State was not determined by strategy. OSU head coach Scott Rueck burned the Gamecocks with set plays out of multiple media timeouts. He found ways to get his players open with high ball screens and some pick-and-roll plays as well.

Yet, when a nine seed plays a one seed, the nine basically has to shoot at a high level or get some kind of unexpected edge in some facet of play to pull the upset. In the first half, the Beavers went 5-of-16 (31.3 percent) from three-point range, 9-of-27 (33.3 percent) overall. Moreover, South Carolina’s ability to get to the penalty stripe was not matched by Oregon State, which went 2-of-6 from the foul line while the Gamecocks made 13 foul shots. Those numbers will never allow a nine to beat a one, and South Carolina took a 34-25 halftime lead.

In the second half, Oregon State wasn’t as patient as it was in the first half, and that only made life more difficult for the underdogs from the PAC-12. South Carolina’s help defense was not quite airtight in this game, but it was fairly consistent in making sure that Oregon State’s leading scorer, Sydney Wiese (who torched Middle Tennessee on Sunday for 26 points), did not get many free looks. She didn’t even break into the scoring column until she hit a three with 1:30 left in regulation with Oregon State down 12 and out of the hunt.

Wiese was able to shake defenders on a few occasions with a crossover dribble, but when she made cuts around screens, the Gamecocks were usually able to cut her off at the pass. Oregon State occasionally scored when Wiese drew two defenders near the top of the key and passed to a teammate. Jamie Weisner was the main target in the first half (10 points at the half), and Gabriella Hanson was Wiese’s main outlet in the second. This dynamic, in which Wiese fed her teammates after drawing the attention of South Carolina’s defense, did not manifest itself often enough for the Beavers to truly get South Carolina off balance.

The Gamecocks could have cruised in the second half, especially after Hamblin fouled out with 13:01 left, leaving the middle vulnerable to post entries. The top seed gained a 47-31 lead with 12:25 to go, and the partisan Oregon State crowd in Seattle became quiet with the trademark resignation that signals the awareness of impending defeat. Yet, a stack of missed four-footers by the Gamecocks enabled Oregon State to hang around and pull within 10, at 47-37, with 10:31 left. Given an opening, the Beavers -– even with Hamblin out –- had one last chance to make a meaningful push and make the crowd a factor down the stretch.

They could not.

The game’s overarching reality –- Oregon State’s inability to hit shots on the occasions when it did pry open an opportunity against South Carolina’s formidable defense –- remained in place, and the Gamecocks were never threatened the rest of the way.  They pushed their lead to 55-37 with just over six minutes left and did not allow any unnecessary drama to enter the proceedings down the stretch.

Oregon State closes the books on a much-improved season at 24-11. South Carolina heads south, but not home, to Stanford to meet fourth-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on Sunday afternoon, March 30. (Time and broadcast options to be announced.)