There’s just something about South Carolina that bedevils the Devils.
The South Carolina Gamecocks knocked Arizona State out of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament on Sunday, ending the Sun Devils’ quest to return to the Sweet Sixteen, a goal they last attained in 2015.
Each of the three games played between the two teams have been decided by five points or less. And Carolina has won the last two – each ending with a one-possession margin.
Last year it was No. 7-seeded Tennessee that ended ASU’s season in the second round of the tourney, upsetting the Sun Devils, who were the No. 2 seed and the No. 11-ranked team in the country.
This year it was ASU’s turn to pull off the second-round upset, as the No. 8-seeded Devils took on the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks in the Stockton Region match-up in Columbia, SC. ASU led early and then had to rally from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, and still had a chance to win it in the final seconds.
A victory by unranked ASU against the No. 3 team in the country would have been one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament. If Sophie Brunner‘s 3-point attempt at the buzzer would have found net, it would have sent the game into overtime and given the Devils a chance to make some history. Instead, the 71-68 victory belonged to the Gamecocks.
ASU returned three starters from last year’s squad that earned a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title, but were picked to finish fourth in the conference to start this season. Their 26 wins last year were the third-most for any season in program history and head coach Charli Turner Thorne was named the 2016 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
Add to that a top-10 recruiting class that led to high expectations for this season.
However, the Devils finished 20-13 overall and 9-9 in conference with a team that was young and plagued by injuries throughout the season, and had to settle for a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 standings.
But, despite losing five of their final 10 regular-season games, including a season-ending loss to UCLA, Turner Thorne appeared to have her squad ready for the post-season. In the opening game of the tournament, ASU beat ninth-seeded Michigan State, 73-61, in a game that was never close after halftime.
The MSU game marked the 400th win for Turner Thorne in her 20 years running the Sun Devil program.
But getting past the Gamecocks in the second-round game was a different story. They faced a team that had won both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, led by a coach who had already taken SC teams to four Sweet 16 appearances, and sporting a 27-4 record going into the playoffs.
And they were playing in South Carolina, where an overwhelming majority of the 8,276 fans were rooting for the “home team.”
That all seemed to matter little to the Devils as they pulled out to a 39-33 lead at halftime, increased the lead to 11 points after coming out of the locker room, and were still up by two going into the fourth quarter. But SC used a 16-6 run to get back into the lead and then worked to hold off the Devils the rest of the way. ASU’s last lead of the game came with just two minutes remaining when Sabrina Haines hit a 3-pointer that capped an 11-0 Sun Devil run and provided a one-point ASU lead at 68-67.
ASU finished with three scorers in double figures: Brunner (20), Reili Richardson (16), and Haines (12).
The Sun Devils out-rebounded SC, 36-29, and won the contest behind the arc, hitting 45.5 percent of their three-pointers to SC’s 33.3 percent.
(Photo: South Carolina Athletics)