GREENSBORO, N.C. -- South Carolina's nightmare from the 2014 NCAA tournament almost came back to haunt the Gamecocks again in 2015. This time, though, the top-seeded Gamecocks are moving onto the Elite Eight.
In a game that was not for the faint of heart, the Gamecocks survived 67-65 over a tough, gritty North Carolina team that nearly upset South Carolina for the second consecutive year in the Sweet 16.
It looked rather dire for the Gamecocks here at Greensboro Coliseum, as they trailed by three points with 1 minute, 21 seconds left. They had made just one shot from the field in the previous four minutes.
But then a most unlikely hero -- senior reserve Olivia Gaines -- launched a 3-pointer from the corner that hit the rim, bounced up, hit the other side of the rim and fell through. That tied the score at 63, and then sophomore center Alaina Coates hit two free throws with 46.1 seconds left to give the Gamecocks a 65-63 lead.
But Jessica Washington answered with a layup for No. 4 seed North Carolina, and it was left for South Carolina to try to make one more big play. And Tiffany Mitchell, the SEC player of the year for the past two seasons, was the one who made it.
Mitchell made a contested layup to put the Gamecocks up 67-65, but North Carolina still had 3.5 seconds to work with. Jamie Cherry, the freshman guard who was the hero of the Tar Heels' second-round victory over Ohio State, got the ball and looked to make a similar play to the winning jumper she hit Monday night. This time, though, she did not get off a good shot, and the Gamecocks could breathe a major sigh of relief.
If last year's Tar Heel victory in the NCAA tournament, in a game played at Stanford, stung South Carolina badly, a loss to North Carolina on Friday would have been devastating to the Gamecocks.
A good chunk of the first half really looked a lot like last year's matchup between these two teams, with North Carolina as the aggressor and South Carolina looking tentative on offense.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley tried several different combinations of players as the Gamecocks looked to find some kind of rhythm. Tina Roy coming off the bench to run the point guard spot seemed to be the best answer.
After trailing by as much as seven in the first half, South Carolina was able to take a 29-25 lead into the break. But it was a back-and-forth struggle in the second half that went down to the wire.
Key stat: Coates went 10-of-10 from the foul line, the most pressure-packed being her free throws that gave South Carolina the lead in the final minute.
Turning point: Actually, it was the final buzzer. Seriously, this game was totally up for grabs all night. It looked as if it might go to overtime, but Mitchell kept that from happening.
Key player: It's hard to pick against Mitchell, since she had the winning basket and finished with 18 points and five assists. But we have to give the nod to Coates, who was just 4-of-10 from the field but nailed all those free throws and was a major pain for the Tar Heels to try to guard. Coates, who played 27 minutes off the bench, finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
How it was won: South Carolina made a couple more "big" plays at crunch time than North Carolina, and the Gamecocks were able to get to the line eight more times than the Tar Heels. That ended up being crucial.
What's next: South Carolina takes on the winner of Friday's second game between No. 2 seed Florida State and No. 3 seed Arizona State in Sunday's regional final.