Gamecocks topple another barrier

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Olivia Gaines stood on the foul line with the end of her college basketball career staring at her.

That's not really what she was thinking about, but she knew. So did fellow South Carolina seniors Aleighsa Welch and Elem Ibiam. The Gamecocks were down by three points against North Carolina, the team that had cut short their season the year before. Here they were with just 81 seconds left to keep it from happening all over again.

"I think for those of us who've been here, it's definitely difficult to not have that thought in the back of your mind, that flashback," Ibiam said afterward, able to smile because it had ended well. "Especially when it's so close, and you've been here before. The same team, the Sweet 16 again. The same situation. But we stayed positive the whole game."

They did, and came away with a 67-65 victory over the No. 4 seed Tar Heels. But, whew, it sure didn't come easily.

This has been a season of knocking down barriers for South Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Greensboro Regional.

Could the Gamecocks beat Tennessee at home in Colonial Life Arena for the first time since 1980, and just the third time ever anywhere? Yes, in late February they proved they could do that.

Could they get past the stumbling block of the SEC semifinals and make it to their first tournament championship game? Uh-huh, they did that in early March. Then, could they win the SEC title? Yep, they did that, too.

Friday at Greensboro Coliseum, the Gamecocks weren't trying to do something that never has been done before in program history. South Carolina did get as far as the Elite Eight once, back in 2002.

But South Carolina women's basketball has been a whole different kind of thing under Dawn Staley, who took over in 2008. This really matters to South Carolina fans now. It's why they came up in nine busloads and outnumbered the Tar Heels fans. It's why they were sweating, their stomachs knotted, and pleading with "fate" to not let it happen again. It's a fan base that sees the big picture and wants to be part of it.

Everyone knew an Elite Eight this year would mean something bigger than in 2002, because everything about South Carolina women's basketball is bigger now. Including the heartbreaks, like the one the Gamecocks felt last year in falling to the Tar Heels.

"It was definitely a combination of relief and joy. To have this win in the Sweet 16, we feel like we are getting over a hump. We're excited about it. This was a perfect example of how much depth we have and how many people can contribute." South Carolina's Elem Ibiam on Friday's victory

That was Gaines' first season with South Carolina after transferring from junior college. Ibiam and Welch, though, had also been around for the Gamecocks' loss in the Sweet 16 in 2012, when Stanford beat South Carolina by 16. So many fantastic things have happened in the seniors' time in Columbia, but was it all going to be over like this? A terrible repeat?

So there she was, Gaines on the stripe, the score 63-60 North Carolina. Gaines, who is from Chester, South Carolina, played her first two seasons at Louisburg College in North Carolina, where she was the 2013 WBCA junior college player of the year.

But she averaged just 9.7 minutes per game last season for the Gamecocks, and was at 9.0 minutes for this season. Her scoring average in 32 games this season was 1.6 points per game. She had come into the game Friday to help defensively, and because the Gamecocks were trying to get the right combinations on court.

"Olivia was in the game for energy," Staley said. "She does a really good job at defending."

Gaines hadn't scored, though, and now South Carolina really needed the points. She put up her free throw -- and missed. But she got her own rebound, passed the ball, and then found herself in the corner by the South Carolina bench. She heard Staley say, "Spot up and be ready!" That gave Gaines a surge of confidence. Never mind that she was just 2 of 5 from 3-point range all season, and that she made just 1 of 2 last season.

There were 61 seconds left. Gaines got the ball back and launched it.

"That shot bounced up and down and any which way it could have," is how North Carolina's Stephanie Mavunga later described it. "And went in. You don't see that every day."

Gaines would say much the same thing herself: "I've never hit a 3 that bounced in like that before. The 3-pointer is not really my game. But I'm glad I could do it for my team tonight."

Gaines' improbable shot wasn't the one that won the game for South Carolina. But without it, the drama that followed wouldn't have happened: Alaina Coates making two huge free throws on the way to finishing the night 10 of 10 from the line. Tiffany Mitchell driving in for the winning basket with five seconds left. North Carolina's Jamie Cherry putting up a desperation shot that clanked off the backboard, prompting a South Carolina celebration.

"It was definitely a combination of relief and joy," Ibiam said. "To have this win in the Sweet 16, we feel like we are getting over a hump. We're excited about it. This was a perfect example of how much depth we have and how many people can contribute."

Coates, the very talented sophomore center, finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Mitchell, the two-time SEC player of the year, had 18 points and five assists. And Tina Roy, a redshirt junior, came off the bench to play 29 very big minutes and make 4-of-8 3-point attempts.

Now there is one more step for the Gamecocks to take, and that comes Sunday against No. 2 seed Florida State. One of these two programs will go to the Final Four for the first time.

The fact that South Carolina is still in position to try to make this happen has a lot to do with a shot that got what you might call a lucky bounce. But it isn't luck that helped Gaines keep a positive attitude these past two seasons of limited chances to play. That happened because she made it happen.

"I'm used to winning, and I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team," Gaines said. "I'm going to give everything I've got every time I step on the court. It's about taking pride in what you do, and I take pride in my role."

Friday, at the most pressure-packed time, her role expanded to that of "clutch shooter." Even if was just for one shot.