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South Carolina books first Final Four

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Asia Dozier thinks she first shot free throws from the regulation distance when she was about 7 years old.

"But it was on an 8-foot goal," she said, "so it was a little easier."

Tiffany Mitchell thinks free throws are the least nerve-racking way to score -- hey, it's just you and the basket -- which is why she gets so annoyed about missing them. She doesn't do that often; Mitchell is an 83.9 percent shooter from the line this season.

In the final 27 seconds of South Carolina's regional final 80-74 victory against Florida State on Sunday, the two juniors went to the stripe six times. With their program's first trip to the Final Four hanging in the balance, Mitchell and Dozier came through, making all six.

"I couldn't think of anything but my teammates and my coaching staff," Dozier said of her thoughts heading to the line, first with 17 seconds left, and then again 10 seconds later. "Knowing how hard all of us worked to get to this point and not wanting to let them down or our fans down. I really willed the ball in."

Consider, though, that this is a player who coming into Sunday's game had shot nine free throws all season. Seriously, you read that right: nine. She'd made six of them. Dozier starts for the Gamecocks, but this is a very deep team, and she averages 4.1 points and 16.7 minutes a game. She doesn't have an opportunity to get to the line much. But when the chances came at the most pressure-packed time, she was ready.

"Me and Tiffany talked about this moment our junior year of high school, being part of the program that creates history for South Carolina," Dozier said of when the two committed to be a part of Dawn Staley's program. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about what's on the line. But losing wasn't an option, and that's how I shot the ball."

Staley is now headed to the Final Four for the first time as a coach, after going as a player three times with Virginia (1990-92). Staley began her coaching career in 2000 at Temple while still playing in the WNBA, and then took over at South Carolina in 2008.

At the time, the Gamecocks weren't very good. They had gone 16-16 the season before Staley came, 4-10 in SEC play. South Carolina had made the Elite Eight in 2002 and went to the second round in 2003, but those two appearances had been the only trips to the NCAA tournament for the program since 1991.

Who believed then that South Carolina was a potential SEC contender, let alone national contender?

"The goal is always in mind," Staley said. "Whether or not we have the pieces in place to accomplish those goals is a different story."

Staley most definitely had the pieces this season, but it was a lot of work getting there. Her early South Carolina teams were built on defense and blue-collar workhorse players. Gradually, Staley began adding real skill players, such as Mitchell, who took over Sunday's game when South Carolina desperately needed her to do that.

Anyone who thought the No. 1 seed Gamecocks' biggest hurdle was over after they survived 67-65 against North Carolina on Friday was wrong. Florida State wasn't ranked when this season started. But the Seminoles continued to improve, and got a huge boost when guard Leticia Romero was declared eligible to play by the NCAA in December, rather than having to sit out a full transfer year.

Romero had a hand injury that required wrapping up for Sunday, but that didn't stop her or the Seminoles' strong guard play from setting the pace against the Gamecocks. Florida State led 41-38 at halftime.

Three weeks ago Sunday, the Seminoles had lost the ACC tournament final to Notre Dame on this same Greensboro Coliseum floor. They were definitely ready to try to set up another potential meeting with Notre Dame, which faces Baylor on Sunday night in the Oklahoma City Regional final.

"We did what we needed to do," Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. "We outrebounded them. Got 10 more shots. We didn't play without fouling, and that was the biggest difference in the game."

The Gamecocks went to the line 27 times, making 18. The Seminoles were 16-of-21 from the stripe. As it did in every game but one this season, Florida State won the battle of the boards, 33-28.

But South Carolina -- despite trailing by as much as 10 in the first half, and not getting a lead until the 10:08 mark -- did not get rattled.

"I just knew we were always in the game," Mitchell said. "We've played behind plenty of times, so we never doubted for a second."

Maybe she didn't, but there were a lot of nervous South Carolina fans. Friday, the Gamecocks had trailed with just more than a minute left, but ended up winning on Olivia Gaines' 3-pointer that bounced in, two free throws from Alaina Coates and a Mitchell layup.

Sunday, Coates and Mitchell came up big again. The 6-foot-4 sophomore Coates went 6-of-6 from the field and scored 14 points against the Seminoles. That, combined with her 18 points and 10 rebounds Friday, earned Coates regional MVP honors.

The vote also could have gone to Mitchell, who had 18 points Friday and a game-high 21 Sunday. Mitchell came up especially big in the closing minutes against Florida State.

With the score tied at 67, Mitchell made a layup with 2:01 left. Then at the 1:21 mark, Mitchell hit one of the biggest shots of her career: a 3-pointer that gave the Gamecocks their only thing resembling a "cushion" in the game, 72-67.

"The game was back and forth the whole time," Mitchell said. "To finally get a little edge on them -- it was great to have some room to breathe."

To that point, Mitchell had taken just one trey all afternoon and missed it. South Carolina as a team had made just one 3-pointer previously on the day. But Mitchell didn't hesitate taking it. She said the Gamecocks had run the same play three times in a row; she'd driven to the basket both previous times, dishing for an assist and scoring herself.

This time, the Seminoles played her to drive, giving Mitchell room to launch the 3-pointer. She has shot nearly 50 percent from long range this season, so she felt very sure about putting it up.

"I just said, 'If they're playing off me, they're on top of it if I drive,'" Mitchell said. "The only thing left was the jump shot, and I took it."

Mitchell shot just 37.9 percent from the field as a freshman, but then worked to change the mechanics of her shot. She shot 49.3 percent last season, and 49.9 percent this season. For the two regional games, Mitchell shot 53.8 percent.

"We want the ball in her hands when we need a basket," Staley said.

Florida State fought to the very end, though. After Dozier made her first two free throws with 17.2 seconds left, Romero got a layup to cut South Carolina's lead to 76-74. Dozier went to the line again. Swish, swish.

Both her father and uncle played for South Carolina's men's basketball team in the 1980s, and her younger brother, Perry Jr., will do the same starting next season. And while Dozier rarely goes to the line in games -- she's 49-of-81 (60 percent) for her career -- she's still confident there.

"Me, definitely," she said when asked who would win a Dozier family free throw shooting contest. "One-on-one? My brother takes it. But I'd win on free throws."

The last play of the game, then, came from Khadijah Sessions, who got a steal and layup and launched the celebration.

Staley's Virginia squad was playing at home in Charlottesville for the regional her senior year, and beat Vanderbilt 70-58 in the final on March 28, 1992. Sunday, almost 23 years to the day later, Staley joined Baylor's Kim Mulkey as the only women to make the Women's Final Four as both a player and a head coach.

Sunday felt like a home game for South Carolina, which had a great fan showing both days at Greensboro Coliseum. Now, it's on to Tampa, Florida. And one of Staley's key recruits -- senior Aleighsa Welch, who set the tone for top South Carolina high school players to stay "home" for college -- wrapped up the journey.

"It has been a four-year process, and every year I've learned something different about my team and myself," Welch said. "Every disappointment I faced three years previously was worth it.

"We needed to go through it my freshman year, getting beat by Stanford in the Sweet 16. We needed to lose to Kansas my sophomore year in the second round. And losing to North Carolina last year. Those were tests we needed, because when our backs were against the wall -- perfect example, today -- we were able to fight through it."