USC guard Kaydra Duckett (3) high-fives fans as she walks off the court after the Gamecocks win against Syracuse at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia in the 2nd round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 20, 2015.
COLUMBIA – Aleighsa Welch knew she was playing her last game at Colonial Life Arena on Sunday night.
But she did not want it to signal the end of her collegiate career.
Welch helped spearhead one of the most dominant performances by the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team this season as it thrashed Syracuse 97-68 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The game was kind of bittersweet,” Welch said. “I knew it was my last game in Colonial Life Arena. But I didn’t want it to be my last game in this uniform.”
The senior made sure that wasn’t the case. She and her teammates kept the crowd of 10, 485 roaring for much of the game. She finished with 13 points — one of six Gamecocks in double figures — and grabbed 10 rebounds.
In addition to advancing USC to the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive season, the win was important on a personal level to the Gamecocks.
They had heard throughout the season how they almost, probably should have, lost to the Orange in a Thanksgiving week tournament in the Bahamas in which USC trailed in the second half by double figures before earning a 67-64 win.
Only a few minutes into the game Sunday, it was obvious the Gamecocks had no intent of this one going to final buzzer. They hopped on the Orange early, led 53-25 at halftime and had won the battle of wills.
“Obviously South Carolina played a tremendous basketball game,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “They get a lot of credit. They came out early and made some shots, made some 3s.
“We knew, if they came out and started making 3s, we were going to have a problem, so we had a problem.”
In winning its 34th consecutive game on its home court, South Carolina, ranked No. 4 nationally in the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll, proved that teams content to play a sagging zone in an attempt to stops its talented inside attack may have to come up with a different plan.
Asia Dozier drilled three early 3-point shots. That was followed by aggressive inside play from Welch and Alaina Coates.
“The coaches had us prepared for them to sag in on us and zone in on our post players,” Dozier said. “The coaches have been in our ear about knocking down open shots. … It was about being patient, working the ball, moving their zone and then making the shots outside.”
Dozier, a sophomore who was selected second-team All-Southeastern Conference, had possibly her most impressive game of the season. She came off the bench to score 14 points and pull down seven rebounds.
“They packed it in on us when they played us earlier in the season,” Coates said. “We just came up with scenarios and made sure we had options and different plays to where we would be able to find the open man.”
That helped the Gamecocks’ bench outscore Syracuse 51-11.
“I thought we came out ready to play and take on a very good Syracuse basketball team,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “Our players had a certain determination to get it done, to take care of business at home.
“Obviously, the outcome was just that.”
Welch and Coates were joined in the USC scoring parade by Tiffany Mitchell (14), A’ja Wilson (13), Dozier (12) and Bianca Cuevas (12).
“The atmosphere was incredible for a college basketball game,” Staley said of the crowd, which on Friday was by far the largest of any women’s first-round game. “I hope our players cherish this moment because it was made special not only by their play but the people who came out and supported us in great numbers.”
The Gamecocks will next play the winner of Monday’s game between North Carolina and Ohio State.