No. 7 Gamecocks Open NCAA Tournament With 63-52 Win Over NC A&T

No. 7 Gamecocks Open NCAA Tournament With 63-52 Win Over NC A&T
Courtesy: USC Athletics

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - South Carolina's A'ja Wilson had not felt this bad about a victory in a long, long time. And she's promised not to let it happen again, especially not in her final home appearance in her stellar college career.

Wilson had 19 points and 16 rebounds as second-seeded South Carolina struggled to put away 15th-seeded North Carolina A&T 63-52 in the women's NCAA Tournament's Albany Regional on Friday night.

The Gamecocks (27-6) held a 19-point lead at the half, yet were scrambling by the end to hold off the hard-charging Aggies (23-9) in the final quarter.

''I felt like I disappointed coach this game and I don't like that feeling,'' said Wilson, the three-time Southeastern Conference player of the year and the program's all-time leading scorer. ''When we watch film, I'm going to see how I can change my ways.''

Something will have to change if defending champion South Carolina hopes to make another run at a national title.

South Carolina was up 39-21 at the half and seemed ready to cruise to their seventh straight NCAA win and ninth consecutive opening-round game. Instead, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament champ outhustled and outplayed the Southeastern Conference tourney winners much of the final 20 minutes.

The Gamecocks were still ahead 53-37 after Doniyah Cliney's layup with 8:44 to go. Then the Aggies took off on a 14-5 run that cut the margin to 58-51 on Kala Green's third 3-pointer of the period with 3:22 remaining. That was as close as North Carolina A&T (23-9) got as South Carolina avoided a huge stunner in the tournament.

''I think the way we played basketball was unacceptable for us, especially this time of year,'' Wilson said. ''And especially after what we did'' in defeating previously unbeaten Mississippi State two weeks back to win a fourth-straight SEC Tournament.

The Gamecocks moved on to a Sunday night second-round game with Virginia, the program that South Carolina coach put on the map with three Final Four appearances more than a quarter-century ago.

Virginia, the 10th seed, topped No. 7 seed Cal 68-62 earlier Friday.

South Carolina, seeded second, will need a stronger effort than this if they hope to push ahead to the tournament's second week.

No one was immune to the struggles. While Wilson put up her 22nd double-double this season and 52nd of her career, she was just 6 of 15 from the field and bottled up much of the game by North Carolina A&T's defense. Alexis Jennings, expected to replace Alaina Coates as a second low-post option, had 10 boards but just seven points - all on foul shots.

Point guard Tyasha Harris, the SEC's leader in assists, was just 1 of 5 from the field with one assist.

Freshman Bianca Jackson was South Carolina's only other double-figure scorer with 16 points.

Green led the Aggies with 21 points off five 3-pointers. North Carolina A&T fell to 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament, although this was closest margin of defeat in those games.

Aggies coach Tarrell Robinson was proud of his team's fight. He said his team sped up South Carolina's play and got them off its usual game. He had his fingers crossed his team could pull off the upset before the Gamecocks put things away in the last minute.

Robinson was asked his thoughts when his team cut the lead to seven points.

''Was it seven? I thought it was eight,'' he replied. ''You've got me even madder now.''

QUOTABLE DAWN STALEY

On the play of freshman guard Bianca Jackson in her NCAA Tournament debut

"It was great to see her knock down shots. You had people giving up good shots to get her the best shot on the floor. And she was able to deliver – that's what you want. She looked comfortable out there, and she looked like she had been there before."

NOTABLE

• The Gamecocks have advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of their seven appearances under head coach Dawn Staley. Carolina improved to 12-2 in the NCAA Tournament in games played in Columbia.

• Carolina moved to 3-0 all-time against North Carolina A&T with Friday's win. All three victories have come by double digits.

• Gamecock senior forward A'ja Wilson notched 19 points and 16 rebounds to record her sixth career double-double in NCAA Tournament play.

• Carolina guard Bianca Jackson's 16 points against the North Carolina A&T marked the freshman's highest scoring output since she netted 20 against No. 1 UConn on Feb. 1.

GAMECHANGER

After a North Carolina A&T 3-pointer cut the Carolina lead to 58-51 with 3:22 to play, Gamecock senior A'ja Wilson delivered two crucial baskets down low to secure the victory. Her final field goal resulted in an and-1 that stretched the lead to 63-52 with 42 seconds remaining.

KEY STAT

Carolina made the most of its time at the line, shooting 86.4 (19-of-22) from the charity stripe. The Gamecocks have shot 80.0 percent or better in each of their last three games.

UP NEXT

Second-seeded Carolina will face 10th-seeded Virginia Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Tipoff at Colonial Life Arena is set for 9 p.m. ET.