DALLAS -- Karlie Samuelson sat on the bench in the final seconds, her hands covering her face, her eyes starting to well. Erica McCall stood on the floor, looked off into the distance and clapped hard twice in frustration and disappointment, knowing the Stanford Cardinal wouldn't conjure a comeback this time.
Stanford, which trailed at the half in three of the four games it played coming into the national semifinals, didn't trail at halftime this time. On Friday, they looked in command, up 29-20, doing the right things against a talented South Carolina team that gave them little margin for error.
Unlike other games when the Cardinal made adjustments in the locker room, came out and changed the course of a game, South Carolina did it to them this time.
A third-quarter surge by the Gamecocks, coupled with a second-quarter ankle injury to Samuelson, finally put the Cardinal in a bind they couldn't escape. Stanford's inspiring, overachieving season ended Friday night at American Airlines Arena with a 62-53 loss to South Carolina, which earned its first NCAA title-game berth.
Twenty-five years to the weekend that Stanford won its last national championship, there was disappointment but not devastation in the Cardinal locker room. There was more reflection on what they had accomplished as a team, than regret for what they hadn't. There were tears, but it was more about the end of the road for a close-knit group.
"I'm going to keep smiling because I love this team," said McCall, a senior forward who ended her career with a 14-point, 14-rebound double-double. "We worked out tails off to get here. We got here for a reason. There's nothing to hang our heads about."
Added senior guard Bri Roberson: "Right now, it's painful, but I'm proud of our team."
Samuelson, her voice catching with emotion, said she hoped her senior class created a lasting team-first culture that will carry on after they move on.
Samuelson sprained her right ankle with about 4 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter and had to be carried off the floor. The senior shooter, whose 3-point shooting has buoyed the Cardinal all season, played in spurts in the second half but didn't have the mobility to get open against the Gamecocks' relentless defense. She was held scoreless for the first time all season, going 0-for-2. She did not take a shot in the second half.
"That hurt bad," McCall said of Samuelson's injury. "Her presence on the floor keeps the pressure off of our bigs. She plays great defense, and just having her out there talking to people, keeping us focused on what we need to do -- yeah, it was a big hit. But we kept our heads up and we kept battling."
There are no mysteries here for Stanford. The Cardinal lost the lead when they missed 14 straight shots, some of them from close range, and were held scoreless for more than six minutes while South Carolina went on a 13-0 run in the third quarter.
They lost the game because Stanford couldn't get a handle on stopping South Carolina All-American A'ja Wilson, who finished with 13 points and 19 rebounds, or Allisha Gray, who scored 16 of her 18 points in the second half.
The Cardinal were outscored 19-8 in second-chance points and committed 16 turnovers in the game. South Carolina went 13-for-21 from the line. Stanford was 3-of-5.
"South Carolina is an elite team and we had to have our 'A' game in order to beat them," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We tried different things, and we got it to 53-50. But then you need a stop. We didn't get it."
"Her presence on the floor keeps the pressure off of our bigs. She plays great defense, and just having her out there talking to people, keeping us focused on what we need to do -- yeah, it was a big hit. But we kept our heads up and we kept battling." Erica McCall
VanDerveer said her team was out of sync in the second half without Samuelson on the floor for large stretches.
"We had been lucky to be healthy all year," VanDerveer said. "It was a bad time for us to have an injury to somebody we count on so much."
Samuelson was the subject of national attention all week along with her sister, Connecticut's Katie Lou Samuelson, and the possibility that the sisters could meet in the title game, which would have been a first in NCAA Division I history.
"Shots just weren't going down," Samuelson said. "I'm proud of how we played, but we didn't get it done."
She smiled wanly.
"I hope I didn't jinx anything. It is what it is."
Like her players, VanDerveer was also reflective in the moments after her program's 13th Final Four appearance came to a close.
She didn't talk much about what her team will look like next season, which will be the 39th year of her legendary coaching career. Stanford will return a talented core of forward Alanna Smith and guards Marta Sniezek and Brittany McPhee, and bring in a top recruiting class. Instead, VanDerveer, talked about the big picture: leading a team that didn't have a single All-American to within nine points of the national championship game.
"If you had said in the beginning of the year that we would go to the Final Four, I'd take it," said VanDerveer, who earlier this season became the second coach in women's basketball history to win 1,000 games. "I'm thrilled about the year we had and I'm so proud of this team. This team was a joy to coach. Only one team wins their last game at the end. We had a tough road. And tonight, we didn't have it down the stretch."