South Carolina Reasserts Itself Atop Women’s Hoops With L.S.U. Win

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley was certainly dressed for a big game on Sunday.

Staley, who is from North Philadelphia and is trying to lead South Carolina to a second straight women’s basketball championship this season, dipped into her collection of Eagles gear and wore a throwback white and green Randall Cunningham No. 12 jersey as she paced the sideline during her team’s big showdown against Louisiana State.

The matchup between the last two unbeaten teams in women’s college hoops played out in the hours before the Super Bowl, giving the sport its latest marquee moment for a season in which several contenders are hoping to topple Staley’s juggernaut program.

Top-ranked South Carolina is seeking to pile up wins (and titles). L.S.U. is looking to join the upper echelon of the sport. The Tigers, ranked No. 3 entering the game, have been surpassing expectations behind their coach, Kim Mulkey, who joined the program in 2021 after leading Baylor to three national championships.

On Sunday, it was South Carolina who passed the test with an 88-64 victory, running away from L.S.U. in the second half and, perhaps, asserting a tiny bit more separation between itself and the rest of the sport.

“We don’t want to lose, and we certainly don’t want to lose in our building,” Staley said on the ESPN broadcast after the game. She added: “Our players are driven, they’re driven. They’re competitive. They want to win at all costs, and they want to do it for each other.”

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley wore a Randall Cunningham No. 12 jersey. The Gamecocks got the win, but unfortunately for her, Philadelphia did not.Credit…Nell Redmond/Associated Press

Staley and her players are piling up numbers that reflect their desire for excellence. The Gamecocks are 118-8 over the past four seasons, and have now won 40 straight regular-season games. They have won 16 straight regular-season games against opponents ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll — including a win over Connecticut on Feb. 5 that was a rematch of their national championship game last season. South Carolina’s last loss came nearly a year ago, to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game.

Its game against L.S.U. featured a matchup of two big players in contention for national player of the year honors — South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (averaging 13.4 points and 9.9 rebounds), who is the reigning national player of the year, and L.S.U. forward Angel Reese (averaging 23.2 points and 15.3 rebounds).

South Carolina (25-0) had the edge in experience. Four of its starters, including Boston, played in the national championship game last season, while L.S.U. (23-1) features four new starters.

Reese picked up two early fouls and was relegated to the bench. South Carolina raced out to an 18-2 lead while sending wave after wave of attacking players into the game.

“They jumped on us like the defending national champions should, and it started at the tip,” Mulkey said at halftime, when L.S.U. had cut the deficit to 10.

L.S.U. got within 5 points in the third quarter, but South Carolina pulled away on a run that was capped by a 3-pointer from guard Brea Beal, which triggered a celebration on the South Carolina bench that spilled onto the floor during the break.

Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 Brazilian, was unstoppable down low with 18 points and 13 rebounds for South Carolina. Senior guard Zia Cooke scored 17 points, and Boston, the projected No. 1 pick in this year’s W.N.B.A. draft, tallied 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Led by Cardoso and Boston, South Carolina dominated inside in scoring and rebounding.

The win keeps the Gamecocks in prime position before the women’s N.C.A.A. tournament. On Thursday, South Carolina was projected as the No. 1 overall seed by the N.C.A.A. Division I Women’s Basketball Committee, giving them the most favorable path possible.

Kamilla Cardoso, left, a 6-foot-7 Brazilian, was unstoppable down low with 18 points and 13 rebounds for South Carolina. Credit…Lance King/Getty Images

Pat Lowry, who oversees the production of women’s college basketball across ESPN’s networks, realized a couple of months ago that the South Carolina-L.S.U. game could end up going head-to-head with Fox’s daylong lead-up of programming for the Super Bowl. On ESPN, South Carolina-L.S.U. followed “Postseason NFL Countdown” and aired before a cornhole tournament.

“I don’t think we anticipated this being two undefeated teams when the schedule was determined,” Lowry said in an email in the week leading up to the game. “But the game time and network for the game feels like a fantastic opportunity, especially with the lead-in programming.”

She added: “I think for women’s basketball fans, there is massive interest in this game and actually seeing how good L.S.U. is against a great team. A game like this is appointment viewing for a women’s basketball fan.”

Staley, who has been making the case for the sport itself while she piles up wins, appreciated the significance of the game ahead of the tip.

“It’s super cool that we can highlight our conference because we’ve done some incredible things,” Staley, who has won three Olympic gold medals as a player and two N.C.A.A. championships as a coach, told reporters before the game. “This conference prepares you for moments like this, it prepares you to win national championships, it prepares you to do a lot of different things because of the competition that brews every night, and it builds to this moment, so it’s cool.”

On Sunday, the day belonged to South Carolina, and unfortunately for Staley, Kansas City rather than Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.

“The Eagles have already won, it’s divine order. Jalen Hurts, it’s divine order,” Staley mused before her own game, after having selected from her many options of Eagles gear, which includes jerseys of the quarterback Hurts (with whom she has traded messages of mutual admiration), as well as the former stars Brian Dawkins and Reggie White.

She happened to be wrong about her Super Bowl prediction, but her team stayed on its roll.

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