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Stanford survive against South Carolina, 66-65, advance to NCAA Tournament title game

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A Final Four clash for the ages.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Semifinal-South Carolina at Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A battle against two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four of an NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is supposed to be a marquee matchup, and it certainly was Friday, as the Stanford Cardinal just outlasted South Carolina to win 66-65 and advance to the national title game.

Haley Jones had a career night, with 24 points, including the winning basket, to lead the Cardinal, while it was another balanced team effort overall to carry Stanford over the line and just edge South Carolina in an epic game.

South Carolina got out to a 5-0 lead, but good ball movement led to a trademark shot for Jones to get on the board at 5-2. But South Carolina were sharp to open the game and the Cardinal were a bit ponderous in their offensive sets.

Jones was the only player to hit her shots early for Stanford, scoring her team’s first three baskets, before Lexie Hull hit a 3-pointer to bring Stanford within six points. Then Jones buried a 3-pointer of her own after a stop of the Gamecocks, and the lopsided South Carolina lead was gone before the 1st quarter was over. Williams hit a jump shot to tie it at 15-15 just before the buzzer, so Stanford recovered from a sluggish start much faster this time around.

Defense reigned on both ends of the court in the 2nd quarter. Brink, battling a hamstring injury, entered after coming out early in the game and provided a boost in the paint on the defensive end.

Meanwhile, Elite Eight win star Ashten Prechtel found offensive contributions hard to find but did her part on defense, too. But Prechtel came through in the dying minutes of the 2nd quarter, hitting two free throws and a 3-pointer to extend Stanford’s lead to six points. And they went into halftime with that lead, the Cardinal up 31-25, with the job only half done.

Both teams were dropping shots to open the 3rd quarter, and South Carolina started to heat up from deep, Zia Cooke in particular taking a couple 3-pointers to open the 2nd half. Then Cooke and Destanni Henderson traded off 3-pointers for South Carolina, while Stanford continued to drive to the basket and pick up points that way.

This time, South Carolina came back in the 3rd quarter, and Stanford’s lead was three points through three quarters, the Cardinal up 52-49 after Lexie Hull hit a couple free throws in the final seconds.

South Carolina’s sixth woman, Laeticia Amihere, made a three-point play to open up the quarter and tie up the game, but Lexie Hull continued to draw fouls on the other end, and her free throws took Stanford ahead once again.

With Williams effectively playing the role of decoy on offense, Lexie Hull and Jones continually picked up baskets to keep the Cardinal just ahead of the Gamecocks down the stretch, but it was a battle. Both Brink and South Carolina’s star big, Aliyah Boston, were in foul trouble late, and coaches Tara VanDerveer and Dawn Staley were active in switching up their lineups to keep the dominant centers in games while trying to keep them from fouling out.

With just over 2:00 to play, Williams finally hit a 2nd-half shot, tallying a floater before a fast break off a steal moments later led to Brink hitting a layup to make it a five-point game.

That play will be a big talking point, because on the steal Lexie Hull appeared to kick the ball and it wasn’t called, leading to Brink’s layup, which turned out to be vital in the end.

On the next possession, South Carolina had a few chances before Henderson got the basket and and-1 to make it a 64-62 lead for Stanford, 1:09 left in the game.

Henderson hit the 3-pointer out of the timeout, and South Carolina took their first lead of the 2nd half, with 39.1 seconds to play.

Lexie Hull had the initial shot coming out of the timeout, but she missed. Fortunately, Jones was at the ready and her shot was pure, giving Stanford the 66-65 edge with 32 seconds to go.

Prechtel got the steal on the other end without South Carolina getting up a shot on the next possession, and Stanford got a timeout with 13.1 seconds left before their possession. Williams killed time on the in-bounds and got fouled.

But there were no shots, and South Carolina got a steal at midcourt to end the game. Brea Beal missed the initial lay-up attempt, and then Boston’s buzzer-beater at the rim went halfway in and then came back out, and Stanford survived to play another game.

Emotions were at a fever pitch, Stanford jubilant and South Carolina in tears instantly. But while this game came down to the finest of margins, it was the kind of game that both teams can be proud of in terms of their performance. And for Stanford, the season of destiny for the nomads continues for one last game.

This will be Stanford’s first national championship game in women’s basketball since 2010, and they’ll play the winner of the UConn-Arizona semifinal. The title game will take place Sunday at 3 pm PT, on ESPN, so make sure you catch the big game.