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Five takeaways from South Carolina women's 76-65 win over Georgia Tech in NCAA basketball tournament

Eric Boynton
Herald-Journal

South Carolina defeated Georgia Tech, 76-65, on Sunday to advance to the NCAA Division-I Women's Basketball Tournament Elite Eight for the fourth time in the last six events.

The Gamecocks, top-seeded in the Hemisfair Region, will play Tuesday at either 7 or 9 p.m. in San Antonio, Texas against the winner of second-seeded Maryland and sixth-seed Texas.

Here are five takeaways from USC's victory over the fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets:

USC guard Zia Cooke fires up a 3-pointer over Georgia Tech guard Kierra Fletcher on Sunday in San Antonio.

The Gamecocks had one of their best 3-point shooting games of the season

USC entered the game ranked 294th nationally averaging only 4.2 three-point field goals per game and were 126th in shooting 32.1 percent from beyond the arc. Against Georgia Tech the Gamecocks made 5 of 8 in the first half and finished 8 of 14. That equaled the second most made in a game this year and the 57 percent was the second-highest shooting percentage.

Their highest percentage was 60 percent when they made 6 of 10 against Alabama. In its previous two NCAA tournament games USC shot a dismal 4 of 29 on 3-point attempts including just 1 of 15 in Tuesday's win over Oregon State. Zia Cooke began Sunday 0 for 6 in the tournament and Destiny Littleton was 1 for 6. Cooke made a USC season-high 5 on 6 tries from long range against Georgia Tech and Littleton was 2 for 3.

"I was almost feeling bad for our players because we haven't hit very many 3-point baskets," coach Dawn Staley said. "We've taken good shots, they just haven't fallen. We had a day off Wednesday but asked the players if they wanted to shoot and they all wanted to. We shot for an hour and a lot of stuff we did was 3-point shooting and we did that on Thursday, Friday and Saturday so we got a lot of 3-point shooting in and I think that helped a great deal.

"It was great to see Zia get them to go down because she's a pretty good catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter. It's great if we can get that going because it gives us an extra layer of confidence and an extra layer our opponents have to guard."

Staley added to ESPN just after the game's conclusion, "We see everybody else around in this tournament and they're hitting 3s so we have to join the party."

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston shoots the ball past Georgia Tech  guard Kierra Fletcher (41) during the second half Sunday in San Antonio.

South Carolina led at halftime despite star Aliyah Boston being held scoreless

The sophomore forward and one of the nation's top players endured some mild foul trouble over the first two quarters, picking up one early before heading to the bench after being whistled for her second with 3:16 left prior to halftime.

Despite Boston missing all four shots in going scoreless and with only two rebounds, the Gamecocks still headed to the intermission up 39-35 even after the Yellow Jackets closed on a 6-0 run with two 3-pointers over the final 1:04. USC shot 8 of 12 in the second quarter, making both 3-point tries and hitting both free throws.

"This team is resilient, determined and focused on the task at hand," Staley said. "We found ourselves with Aliyah in a little foul trouble early on so this team pivoted extremely well and it's good to hit shots. We can afford ourselves that situation when we're hitting shots."

Laeticia Amihere continues to be one of USC's biggest and most key contributors

The 6-foot-4 Canadian sophomore has been one of the team's best performers through three NCAA games and Saturday she was second to Cooke's 17 points with 15, just one shy of her career high. Amihere made 6 of 8 shots, all three free throws, grabbed a team-leading seven rebounds and added a steal and an assist in 23 minutes.

South Carolina forward Laeticia Amihere (15) shoots past Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj (13) during the first half of a college basketball game in the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

After the Gamecocks lost senior swing player Lele Grissett for the event due to a leg injury suffered in the SEC championship, Amihere is now the first reserve off the bench. She was particularly big in the first half when Boston was held without a point when she scored 10 on 4 of 5 shooting and had four rebounds.

"I think it was my most focused game and I've just been working on being zoned into every game and I think it was my best (career) game in that aspect," Amihere said. "It's important to come out whenever my name's called. (Staley) trusts me to be able to deliver whatever she needs me to do at that time."

Amihere added her comfort level has increased as she's being asked to do more and it's "just adjusting to this high-level play and not overthinking. I think that's a big thing for me. Just being decisive and giving my team what they need. I think it starts in practice and being able to translate that into the game is very important for me this tournament and I think I've been able to do that."

In three NCAA games Amihere is averaging 11.3 points, eight rebounds and 24 minutes while totaling three assists and three steals. Her one drawback has been 14 turnovers.

South Carolina guard Destiny Littleton (11) scores against Georgia Tech during the first half of a college basketball game in the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

USC's bench provided a big boost during Boston's rare mediocre showing

Boston totaled just nine points on 4 of 10 shooting, got to the free throw line only once and grabbed just five rebounds, but the Gamecocks bench picked up the slack in outscoring the Yellow Jackets 21-3.

That was mainly due to Amihere's 15 points with the Gamecocks only playing two non-starters, but guard Destiny Littleton scored six points on just three just attempts, making two 3-pointers over 15 important minutes. Georgia Tech also played only two reserves for a combined 11 minutes and they shot 1 of 4 and grabbed one rebound.

"The bench is a big part of who we are and being able to go deep in our bench is going to be important down the stretch," Amihere said. "It's always important, especially in a tournament like this right now you have to come up big."

Staley added, "We're playing where I thought we could play earlier in the season. I just think there's an extra effort of concentration and players knowing they're going to play. (Amihere) knows she's going to play some pretty significant minutes for us. Destiny knows she's going to play so I think they can relax and once they get into the game be the best version of who they are. And it couldn't have happened at a more crucial time with Lele going out."

South Carolina head coach Dawn Stanley, right, watches guard Brea Beal (12) drive to the basket during the second half of a college basketball game against Georgia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Sunday, March 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Brea Beal and Victaria Saxton once again brought the energy and intangibles

The starting duo has been the team's postseason sparkplugs with their all-around skill sets. Against Georgia Tech, Saxton scored 12 points on 6 of 8 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and had a block and a steal. Beal scored eight points on 4 of 6 shooting with five rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.

"(Saxton) is a ball of energy and does all the little things, well that people think are little things," Amihere said. "She works so hard on defense and offense and gives us that boost that we need every single game, day in and day out and I'm so happy to see her play and how hard she works."

For the tournament Saxton is averaging 13 points and six rebounds while totaling seven blocks, three steals and three assists. Beal is averaging six points and 7.3 rebounds with totals of five assists, four blocks and two steals.

South Carolina forward Victaria Saxton (5) reaches for the ball as Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets center Nerea Hermosa (20) defends during their Sweet 16 game on Sunday in San Antonio.