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SEATTLE -- From his seat, with the long view that comes at the end of the season, Oregon State coach Scott Rueck could see things clearly.
His team played Notre Dame this season, it played Stanford and now South Carolina. What do the country's elite teams have in common?
"They answer," Rueck said without a beat of hesitation. "As soon as you get close, they hit a different gear. Great programs and great teams expect that."
South Carolina answered on Tuesday night at Alaska Airlines Arena. The Gamecocks didn't wait until a crucial moment in the second half. They didn't wait for the Beavers to stage a comeback. They walked out onto the floor and from the moment the game began, they answered.
South Carolina (29-4) led from start to finish in a 78-69 win over Oregon State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. And they earned the program's second trip to the regional semifinals in the past three years, moving south along the West Coast to Maples Pavilion, where they will face North Carolina on Sunday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
"We knew it was going to be a tough, competitive game," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "I just thought our players were up for the challenge. They wanted to get to the Sweet 16. And I thought we did answer, time and time again."
South Carolina was the better team and it played that way. As we know, it doesn't always work that way in the pressure-cooker of March. But the top-seeded Gamecocks seized control early and held it against a game, but ultimately overmatched, Oregon State. The Beavers needed to play a great game, but fell short in a few key ways.
Forward Aleighsa Welch carried South Carolina in the first half, establishing the Gamecocks inside and finishing with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
|Aleighsa Welch had 21 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday. Her Gamecocks play UNC on Sunday. The Tar Heels beat South Carolina 74-66 on Dec. 18 in Myrtle Beach.|
Guard Tiffany Mitchell carried them late, with 20 points, all in the second half.
And Khadijah Sessions led the group defensive effort on Oregon State freshman point guard Sydney Wiese that proved the key to the game.
"We knew that we wanted to be aggressive," Welch said. "One thing we emphasized was going right through them, not trying to go around them, not trying to go over them, just taking it right at their chest. I think it paid off."
Oregon State (24-11) had to count on doing certain things to pull off this upset. Hitting shots, keeping players on the floor, minimizing mistakes. Things that did not happen.
Wiese, the freshman guard who had played so brilliantly against Middle Tennessee (26 points, six 3-pointers) in the first round, struggled against suffocating defensive pressure all night. She missed her first 12 shots from the floor and finished the game with eight points, her first basket coming with 1:32 left in the game.
"It was a total team effort on [Wiese]," Sessions said. "We threw a lot of fresh bodies at her and made every shot difficult for her. She is a great player and she knows how to get her shots off."
The Beavers also needed more from 6-foot-6 center Ruth Hamblin, who was going to be the counter to South Carolina's size inside. And while Hamblin finished with three blocks and a handful more altered shots in the paint, she was 0-for-5 from the floor and fouled out with 13 minutes left in the game.
Sophomore Jamie Weisner led the way with 21 points. Freshman Gabriella Hanson added 16.
"They forced us to do a lot of things we didn't want to do," Weisner said. "But we also got a lot of good looks that should have fallen."
Oregon State was in foul trouble all night, a total of 31 personal fouls called against the Beavers. The Gamecocks went to the line 43 times, making 34 attempts.
Rueck said it was difficult for his team to play uphill all night.
"They made us pay for every mistake we made," Rueck said. "They hit free throws, and on defense, they kept us uncomfortable enough to miss some shots that we normally make.
"They were relaxed and they got to us. ... I felt pretty good about most of the things that happened tonight, but it was just the ball not going in."
In the first half, South Carolina went on a 7-0 run that turned a tenuous four-point lead into an 11-point advantage before halftime. South Carolina built an 18-point lead with 6:22 left in the game. Oregon State cut it to single digits with 1:32 to go on Wiese's first score, but could never get closer than nine points.
The Beavers, with just one senior on the roster, were already talking about the work they will be putting in to get back to this spot. It's tough not to envision this team as a true challenger for the Pac-12 title next season.
"Our team learned that they belong," Rueck said. "We've had a taste of it. This is a pivotal time for us."
Meanwhile, South Carolina got its own taste of something they like, and the Gamecocks still have an opportunity for more.
"We can't get caught up in the fact that we are [in the Sweet 16]," Welch said. "We want to make a deeper run in this tournament. This isn't where we want our season to end."