SAN ANTONIO (AP) - 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 will play the Longhorns after Texas’ 64-61 victory over Maryland 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.’'
South Carolina sophomore Aliyah Boston was scoreless entering the second half, but that changed on the first possession of the third quarter when Boston started a personal 7-0 run that extended into an 11-2 South Carolina run after buckets from sophomore Brea Beal and junior Victaria Saxton gave South Carolina a 50-39 lead.
The Gamecocks battled Georgia Tech in the paint all afternoon, holding a narrow rebounding edge, but outscored Georgia Tech 44-32 in the paint, marking the first time the Yellow Jackets have been outscored in the paint during the NCAA Tournament.
With the win South Carolina advances to the Elite Eight for the fifth time in program history, and the fourth time under Dawn Staley.
The Gamecocks keyed in from beyond the arc in the first half going 5-of-8 (.625) from three, passing their average for made threes per game (4.2) in only two quarters.
South Carolina faced its toughest rebound battle in the postseason yet but outrebounded Georgia Tech 29-28, continuing the season-long streak of not getting outrebounded.
Sophomore Zia Cooke opened the game hot, scoring South Carolina’s first eight points and bookended her game with a six-point fourth quarter, finishing with a team-high 17 points and five made 3-pointers, tying the program record for made threes in a NCAA Tournament game.
Sophomore Laeticia Amihere continues to make the most of her minutes off the bench, scoring eight of her 15 points in the second quarter and finishing with a team-high seven rebounds. Amihere is averaging 11.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Junior Victaria Saxton was explosive in the third quarter, scoring eight points coming out of the break. Saxton finished with 12 points and six rebounds.
Sophomore Aliyah Boston got things going in the third, scoring seven of her nine points after the halftime break. Boston closed the game with nine points, five rebounds and three assists.
Junior Destanni Henderson had the offensive flowing, scoring nine points and dishing out a game-high seven assists.
Sophomore Brea Beal continues to be a vital key for the Gamecocks, finishing the day with eight points, five rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks.