At deep South Carolina, ‘USC’ means ultimate supporting cast

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Brea Beal has made a habit – a career, actually – of relentlessly guarding the best backcourt player for South Carolina’s opponent and making sure her night is full of frustration.

Her effectiveness is easy enough to see, such as in the semifinal victory over Louisville when the 6-foot-1 junior smothered Cardinals star Hailey Van Lith. Beal can usually hear when she’s the most effective, because the trash-talking frequently follows.

“I just love to keep the ball rolling and not really feed into that, but I definitely do feel it a lot,” said Beal, who held Van Lith to nine points with four turnovers after she hit the 20-point mark in each of Louisville’s first four tournament games.

South Carolina plays Connecticut at Target Center on Sunday night for the national championship. The Gamecocks (34-2) have given up an average of less than 45 points over their first five games in this NCAA Tournament, managing to take one of the nation’s best defenses up another notch.

Beal is their catalyst on that end of the court, regularly taking on a prolific scorer and making her work hard for anything she gets.

“She came in with so much intensity defensively, and it just always stuck with her,” teammate Destanni Henderson said.

Only eight out of 36 times this season has Beal allowed her primary defensive assignment to hit her scoring average. That includes UConn’s Christyn Williams, who had 10 points in their matchup in the Bahamas on Nov. 22.

Midway through her freshman year, the native of Rock Island, Illinois, began to feel her role of the defensive ace as a natural one.

“Coach was like, `You’re good at this. Let’s keep doing this,”‘ Beal said, later adding: “Coming out of high school I was so used to all the little hardware, but as time went on it was bigger than that. I realize it was bigger than that now. You’re playing for something, for the community, for the team, for the coaches.”

South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, has the enviable benefit of both the AP National Player of the Year, Aliyah Boston, and one of the deepest teams in the field. Coach Dawn Staley believes in bench minutes, giving her starters ample rest. The lineup around Boston, too, gives the Gamecocks a wealth of options and skills to throw at the Huskies.

USC is the acronym for the University of South Carolina, but it ought to stand for “ultimate supporting cast.”

Beal matched her season high with 12 points against Louisville. Victaria Saxton, who helps Boston patrol the glass and the paint, totaled 27 points and 28 rebounds over the past three games. Henderson is 5 for 8 from 3-point range over the past two games. Zia Cooke is averaging 10.7 points per game this season.

“Everybody on the team can be dominating,” said Henderson, the sharpshooting senior guard. “I feel like our depth is very interesting, because not a lot of teams have that and a lot of teams have to play their starting five for 40 minutes.”

Beal will likely follow Williams for most of the night, with more of a team effort to contain Huskies star Paige Bueckers – who won the Player of the Year award in 2021 before missing nearly three months of this season to a knee injury.

Bueckers had 19 points and seven assists against the Gamecocks earlier this season. While she’s still been rounding back into form after the rehab, occasionally striking a nerve with a hard landing on the court and grimacing from the discomfort, there’s no way that South Carolina will get anything but the best of Bueckers in the title game in her hometown.

“When it comes to someone like Paige, no matter what she’s going to go out there and the adrenaline is going to shield her from that,” Beal said. “I definitely think we’re going to get her best game that she’s played all season for sure.”

UConn-South Carolina title tilt packs plenty of star power

UConn v Stanford
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MINNEAPOLIS – The South Carolina Gamecocks held the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25 women’s poll all season about as tightly as they play defense every night.

The last test for the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament will be the Connecticut Huskies, who produced a lockdown defensive performance of their own against Stanford to reach the national championship.

Aliyah Boston showing who’s the boss in the paint, and Paige Bueckers slithering around the perimeter. Dawn Staley on one bench, and Geno Auriemma on the other. South against North.

Women’s college basketball gets the greats of the game together on the biggest stage as consistently as any sport, and this South Carolina-UConn matchup will be no different.

The Gamecocks (34-2) toppled Louisville 72-59 in the first semifinal at Target Center on Friday night, behind 23 points and 18 rebounds from Boston, the newly minted AP Player of the Year.

“With the awards, I’m really blessed, but my main focus is bringing home a national championship,” Boston said. “I’m just really locked in on that.”

After missing a close-range putback at the buzzer in a one-point loss to Stanford in the Final Four last season, Boston bounced right back this year.

“We knew this was a new team,” Boston said. “We have a lot more depth.”

The Gamecocks have been a team on a mission.

“It’s a relief right now, and it feels great. But we’re going to take in this moment, and we’re not done yet, so we still have unfinished business,” said Destanni Henderson, who hit three 3-pointers on Friday.

UConn (30-5) took care of the defending champion Cardinal, outlasting Stanford 63-58 in the second game. Bueckers had 14 points, five assists and two steals in her hometown to help get Auriemma back to the title game for the first time since 2016.

“Points are hard to come by in this tournament, and today was certainly no different,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to have to win some other way.”

Bueckers and her teammates huddled at midcourt in celebration once the buzzer sounded, most of them holding up index fingers as they shouted, “One more!” at each other in anticipation of the next – and last game – of this nothing-comes-easy season. Eight UConn players had to miss at least two games this season with injury or illness.

These Huskies, the only No. 2 seed in this Final Four, might have overachieved a little, as strange as that sounds for such a dynastic program.

“Coming in, I don’t think we’re the best team there. I don’t think we can win even if we play our `A’ game. We need help. We need Stanford to not play their best game. We need them to miss shots they normally make,” Auriemma said.

UConn has never lost in the NCAA final, sporting a staggering 11-0 record in national championships. The four straight titles the Huskies won from 2013-16 was a streak interrupted by none other than South Carolina in 2017, when UConn lost to Mississippi State on an overtime buzzer-beater in the Final Four.

The Gamecocks’ only championship came five years ago.

However, South Carolina beat UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November, pulling away from the Huskies in the fourth quarter with that stifling defense.

And nobody will have more of the spotlight Sunday than Bueckers, the smooth-shooting, lightning-quick sophomore guard. She grew up in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and grew her game at Hopkins High School, just 10 miles west of the arena that’s sold out this weekend with crowds of more than 18,000.

“It doesn’t really matter the location,” said Bueckers, who missed nearly three months this season to a left knee injury. “We’re just trying to win and keep playing with this team.”

For Bueckers, who last year became the first freshman to win the Player of the Year award, this stretch run has been all about getting back up to speed after a long layoff. Twice in the fourth quarter, she grimaced and gingerly walked around after hard landings, but there’s no way that knee – even if it’s not 100% – will keep her from going all out for the title.

“Everybody is going to lay it on the line,” Bueckers said, “and that’s just basketball.”

UConn reaches 14th straight Final Four, tops NC State in 2OT

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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Paige Bueckers scored 15 of her 27 points in the two overtimes, and UConn beat North Carolina State 91-87 to extend the Huskies’ record women’s Final Four streak to 14 straight on Monday night.

The Huskies, who had been 0-for-5 in overtime in the NCAA Tournament, will face top seed Stanford on Friday night in the national semifinals in Minneapolis.

Bueckers, who grew up 10 miles outside the site of the Final Four, scored the first five points in the second overtime to lift the Huskies (29-5).

“Two days ago I said, `Win or go home’, but we won and I’m still going home,” Bueckers said. “This is crazy. I’m just so excited no matter the location, no matter where it is.”

The sensational sophomore, who missed two months this season with a knee injury, once again looked like the player who was the AP Player of the Year in 2021. She was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Bridgeport Region.

“Thank God Paige came back, because she just gives everybody so much confidence and then everybody just kind of played and everybody took turns making plays,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was just an amazing basketball game and it was a great showcase for our sport.”

With N.C. State within 86-84 in the second OT, Christyn Williams hit the second of two free throws and then a layup with 21 seconds left to give UConn a 89-85 lead.

Jakia Brown-Turner, who hit a 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds in the first overtime to tie the game, then made a layup to get the Wolfpack within two, but Williams converted a layup off the inbounds to seal the win.

UConn had lost senior center Dorka Juhasz to a forearm injury earlier in the game.

“This team has been through so much and it’s only made us stronger,” Bueckers said. “And if we see one of our sisters go down, we’re going to do it for her. We all love each other, we’re all so close. It just signifies what we’ve been through all year. Whole bunch of adversity, highs and lows, ups and downs. We stayed composed and we stayed together.”

Brown-Turner finished with 20 points for N.C. State (32-4).

Both teams had chances to win in the final 30 seconds of regulation. UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa was fouled with 28 seconds left and missed both free throws. On the ensuing possession, Diamond Johnson dribbled down the clock and drove before passing it back out to Kai Crutchfield, who was way off on a deep 3-pointer from the wing.

N.C. State was trying to reach the national semifinals for the second time in school history. The Wolfpack made it that far in 1998, beating the Huskies in the Elite Eight that season to advance. None of the current roster was even alive then.

Crutchfield, Raina Perez and Kayla Jones all came back this year using their extra COVID-19 season that was granted by the NCAA to try and lift the Wolfpack to new heights. They succeeded, advancing farther than the team had in 24 years.

The Huskies dealt with injuries and COVID-19 issues all season and had their most losses since 2012, including their first conference defeat in nine years and their first loss to an unranked team since 2012.

Things have been looking up for UConn since the team started getting healthy, starting with Bueckers.

This was the first double-OT game in women’s NCAA Tournament history in the regional final or later.

INJURED HUSKY

UConn suffered a major blow when Juhasz went down in the first half with a scary-looking injury just above her left wrist. She was fouled on a putback attempt and landed awkwardly when she tried to put her hands down to brace her fall.

Juhasz was on the floor in tears and was helped back to the locker room with her team up by seven points. The Huskies extended the advantage to 10 before N.C. State cut it to 34-28 at the half.

She returned to the bench at the start of the fourth quarter dressed in warmups with with her arm in a sling.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

UConn: Beat Mercer in the opening round, UCF in the second round and Indiana in the Sweet 16.

N.C. State: Topped Longwood in the first round, Kansas State in the second round and Notre Dame in the regional semifinals.

TILL WE MEET AGAIN

This was the first meeting between the schools since the 2006-07 season. They are scheduled to play the next two seasons.

“I agreed to a series with UConn starting next year,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “Coming back here next year, then they’ll come to us the following year.”

Lanier named SMU’s coach after NCAA tourney with Georgia State

Georgia State v Gonzaga
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DALLAS – SMU named Rob Lanier as its coach on Sunday after he took Georgia State to the NCAA Tournament this season.

Lanier was 53-30 in his three seasons at Georgia State. He previously took Siena to the NCAA tourney in 2002, in the first of his four seasons as coach there. In between those head coaching stints, Lanier was an assistant at Tennessee, Texas, Florida and Virginia.

Tim Jankovich announced his retirement Tuesday after six seasons as SMU’s coach and a coaching career of nearly four decades that included stints as an assistant for Larry Brown and Bill Self.

Before going to Georgia State, the 53-year-old Lanier spent eight seasons as associate head coach to Rick Barnes, four at Tennessee after four at Texas. That came after four seasons as an assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida.

“Rob is an excellent coach and has been mentored by some of the game’s best in Rick Barnes and Billy Donovan. He and his staff will build upon the success our program has experienced under coach Brown and coach Jankovich,” SMU athletic director Rick Hart said.

SMU was 24-9 this season, which ended in the second round of the NIT with a 75-63 loss to Washington State that was its only home defeat this season.

The Mustangs were left out of the 68-team NCAA field despite finishing second in the American Athletic Conference regular-season standings, behind Elite Eight team Houston and ahead of NCAA tourney team Memphis. SMU beat Houston once and swept its two regular-season games against Memphis before losing to the Tigers in the AAC Tournament semifinals.

Lanier played at St. Bonaventure from 1986-90, then was a graduate assistant at Niagara before his first full-time assistant coaching job at his alma mater. He also was an assistant at Rutgers.

Georgia State was 18-12 this season and made the NCAA tourney as the Sun Belt Conference champion. The Panthers lost in the first round to No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga.

“I couldn’t be more honored to lead the program on the Hilltop,” Lanier said. “SMU’s location in the heart of Dallas, Texas, the beautiful campus, stellar academic reputation and overall commitment to excellence make it the perfect fit for me and my family. I’m excited to get to work and to take this program to the next level.”

Lanier is a cousin of eight-time NBA All-Star Bob Lanier, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Reports: Memphis, Hardaway facing serious NCAA violations

Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The University of Memphis and men’s basketball coach Penny Hardaway have been accused of serious violations of NCAA rules, including failing to cooperate with an investigation, two newspapers reported.

The Daily Memphian and The Commercial Appeal reported that they obtained copies of a notice of allegations from an investigation by the NCAA’s Independent Accountability Resolution Process.

The newspapers also obtained a response from the university denying the allegations. The university said the notice “contains no specific facts, and it is the specific facts that are imperative for the resolution of this matter.”

The allegations come after Memphis lost to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last week.

Alleged infractions include four Level I and two Level II violations, according to an amended notice of allegations the university received in July 2021. Level I and Level II violations are considered the most serious NCAA infractions.

The school received seven total accusations, including alleged violations of NCAA clauses related to lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. Hardaway was involved in at least one Level I infraction and two Level II violations stemming from the NCAA’s investigation that ran from May 2019 to February 2021, the notice said.

Many details and allegations included in the documents have been redacted.

The alleged violations appear to coincide with the time former Tigers player and prized recruit James Wiseman spent at Memphis. Wiseman had received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017, when Hardaway was the coach at East High School in Memphis.

Although Hardaway wasn’t Memphis’ coach at the time of the payment, the NCAA ruled it wasn’t allowed because he was a booster for the program. The former NBA All-Star gave $1 million in 2008 to his alma mater for the university’s sports hall of fame.

Hardaway became the Memphis coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

Wiseman played the first game of the 2019-20 season before the NCAA ruled Wiseman ineligible. He played two more games after filing a restraining order against the NCAA.

On Nov. 20, the NCAA suspended Wiseman for 12 games and ordered him to repay $11,500 in the form of a donation to the charity of choice. Wiseman now plays for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

Also, data from a computer hard drive belonging to a former assistant coach was not preserved, the notice said. The university’s response indicated the computer belonged to Mike Miller, a former NBA player.

The IARP’s Complex Case Unit alleges Memphis failed to cooperate with the investigation, including failing to report acts of noncompliance in a timely manner. Hardaway “failed to demonstrate that he promoted an atmosphere of compliance within the men’s basketball program,” the notice said.

“The Institution failed to timely produce requested and relevant documents,” the amended notice of allegations said. “Specifically, on August 26, 2020, the CCU submitted document requests to the Institution seeking various categories of documents including but not limited to communications and text messages.”

In its response, the university said “the facts do not demonstrate a lack of institutional control, a failure to monitor, a failure to cooperate or a lack of (redacted) responsibility.”

“UM has presented facts that show institutional control, ongoing and appropriate monitoring, cooperation, a culture of compliance, and head coach responsibility,” the school’s response letter stated.

The university declined comment in a statement obtained by the newspapers Saturday, saying the school “is not permitted to comment due to the ongoing IARP process.”

The Complex Case Unit also identified aggravating factors, including a history of Level I and Level II violations that could be considered when handing out penalties. The unit cited violations in 2009, 2005, 1989 and 1986.

Also, Memphis’ established history of self-reporting Level III violations will be considered. The school has reported 32 violations in the past three years.

NC State looks to end UConn’s Final Four streak

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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — No one on North Carolina State’s roster was born the last time the Wolfpack reached their last Final Four 24 years ago.

The top-seeded Wolfpack will try to end that drought and stop UConn’s record streak of 13 straight trips to the national semifinals when the two teams play Monday night in the Bridgeport Region final.

Raina Perez was the closest to being alive back in 1998 – being born a few months after that run by legendary N.C State coach Kay Yow’s team.

“It’s huge for this program and it will take a lot of hard work and grit, especially since it’s UConn,” Perez said of reaching the Final Four. “They are always a good team and we will have to fight real hard and we can get there.”

The graduate guard is a big reason that the Wolfpack are still playing. Perez had a steal at midcourt and go-ahead layup with 14 seconds left as the Wolfpack (32-3) advanced to the Elite Eight on Saturday after rallying past Notre Dame.

It could be a tall task for Wes Moore’s team, which is playing a game in the Huskies’ backyard in front of an expected sellout crowd that will be pulling hard for UConn.

“I think tomorrow is a home game for them. No question about it,” N.C. State center Elissa Cunane said. “We’ve gone to South Carolina and beaten them at their home, Louisville at their home. We’ve beaten great teams on their home court and we’re capable of doing it tomorrow.”

The last time N.C. State got this far was in 1998 when it played UConn in the regional final and beat the Huskies to reach the school’s lone Final Four.

UConn had a little easier time with Indiana, using a 16-0 run to start the third quarter to pull away from the Hoosiers. The Huskies have been on a historic run over the past 13 years, reaching the national semifinals every season and winning six NCAA titles during that span. – the last coming in 2016 to end a streak of four consecutive ones.

“Your program can only get you so far,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “This is the end of the road unless someone steps up and plays spectacularly well. Who that is I don’t know. We haven’t had our team together except for the last four weeks. It could be anyone at this point.”

The Huskies (28-5) have had one of their most challenging seasons in recent memory due to injuries and COVID-19 issues. UConn had its most losses since 2012, including the Huskies’ first conference defeat in nine years as well as their first loss to an unranked team since 2012.

Things have been looking up for UConn since the team started getting healthy, including the return of Paige Bueckers from a knee injury that sidelined her for over two months. While she hasn’t been playing at the same level she did as a freshman last year when she won the AP Player of the Year award, she’s been working her way back.

She played 33 minutes in the Sweet 16 win.

“It’s been a little bit of finding ourselves again, how much do we want to cheer for Paige and how much do we need to just play basketball and make shots and let her figure her own way out out there,” Auriemma said. “Today she took a more assertive role, which I like for her to do.”

This is the first head-to-head meeting between the schools since the 2006-07 season although they are scheduled to play next two seasons.

“I agreed to a series with UConn starting next year,” Moore said. “Coming back here next year, then they’ll come to us the following year”