DALLAS – No. 3/4 South Carolina topped No. 7/7 Mississippi State 67-55 to capture the program’s first NCAA Championship Sunday night at the American Airlines Center. Juniors A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray both notched double-doubles to deliver the 2017 title to the Gamecocks, who broke through following their second Final Four appearance in three years. Carolina ends its historic run with a final mark of 33-4, while the Bulldogs closed their 2016-17 campaign at 34-5.
Wilson, the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, again served as the closer for the Gamecocks after tallying eight fourth-quarter points to go with three rebounds and a pair of crucial blocks over the final 10 minutes of Sunday’s all-SEC affair. She finished the contest with a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds while adding four blocks. Gray, who was named to the All-Tournament Team along with Wilson, converted a handful of tough baskets against the Bulldogs en route to 18 points. She collected four of her 10 rebounds in the fourth period and finished the night 7-of-15 from the floor, while fellow junior guard Kaela Davis chipped in 10 points to mark the third Gamecock to reach double figures.
A 23-6 first-half run handed the early momentum to Carolina and helped establish a 13-point lead with less than four minutes to play in the second quarter. Tough defense down the stretch of the first two periods keyed the Gamecocks, who headed to the locker room with a double-digit advantage after holding Mississippi State to just 38.5 percent shooting in the first 20 minutes. The Bulldogs fought back and came within five of the lead late in the third quarter, and the Gamecock advantage was cut to 54-50 with less than seven minutes left in the game. Several key defensive plays allowed Carolina to remain in charge before Wilson delivered pivotal baskets down the stretch.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a six-point lead before a jumper from the right block by Wilson and two free throws from Davis cut the Gamecock deficit to 7-5 with 6:11 left in the first quarter. Junior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, who assisted on Wilson’s inside jumper, remained an early factor on the offensive end with a layup followed by a point from the line 34 seconds later to bring the Gamecocks to within one of the lead at 9-8 midway through the period. Carolina’s offense came from the paint over the next few minutes, and a spin move from Wilson set the junior up for a bucket inside before freshman guard Tyasha Harris found Gray in transition on the break to make it 12-12 with 3:01 to play in the quarter.
Gray delivered two more plays down the stretch of the period, starting with a tough jumper from the right side that evened the score at 14. Her block with 29 seconds left in the quarter eventually set up two free throws for sophomore guard Doniyah Cliney that handed Carolina its first lead of the night at 16-14, and the Gamecocks headed to the first break leading 18-14 after Gray connected on a pair of shots from the line with a second remaining. The Gamecock defense locked in as the quarter progressed, and Mississippi State was held scoreless for the period’s final 2:46 after missing six of its last seven shots down the stretch.
It was Gray who again answered the call in the beginning of the second quarter, and a put-back bucket from the guard led to a three-point play that stretched Carolina’s lead to 21-14 with 8:07 remaining in the first half. The Gamecocks, who converted 11 of their first 13 free throw attempts, continued to collect points at the line, and two more from the charity stripe by Wilson established a 25-16 advantage with less than seven minutes to play in the second quarter. The junior forward and Gray combined for 19 of Carolina’s first 27 points, and the Gamecocks grabbed firm control of the game and built a 31-18 lead after opening the quarter on a 13-4 run. Wilson followed her own shot and converted her fourth field goal of the half to reach double figures and make it 27-18 before Harris’ layup gave the Gamecocks the 13-point lead at 31-18 with 3:39 left in the second quarter.
Cliney’s put-back bucket less than two minutes later maintained Carolina’s double-digit lead, and another difficult shot from Gray put her team in front 35-24 with just over a minute to play in the half. The Gamecocks, who outscored the Bulldogs 18-12 for the quarter, connected on five of their final six field goal attempts of the half to take a 36-26 lead into the locker room. Wilson and Gray each netted 11 first-half points, while Cliney added four off the bench to go with two rebounds over the first 20 minutes.
Carolina boasted another strong start out of the break, starting the period on a 6-2 run to open up a 14-point lead. A jumper from Davis followed by a layup in transition by Cuevas-Moore made it 40-28 before Wilson connected on two free throws to grow the advantage to 42-28 with 7:54 left in the third quarter. The Bulldogs climbed back to within five of the lead at 45-40 after knocking down five field goals over the next five minutes in a 9-0 run that was capped off by a jumper from just inside the 3-point line with 3:37 to play in the period. Gray’s defense halted the stretch, as the guard took the ball away before laying it in on the other end to give the Gamecocks a 47-40 advantage late in the quarter. The play sparked Carolina for the rest of the period, and a jumper inside from Wilson followed by Davis’ field goal from the right elbow as time expired handed the Gamecocks a 52-44 lead as the teams entered the final break. The Bulldog offense again stalled, as Mississippi State registered zero points over the final 3:37 of the period.
The teams traded baskets to start the fourth quarter, with Davis slashing to the right block before converting the layup to put Carolina ahead 54-46 with 26 seconds gone in the period. The Gamecock offense struggled over the next few minutes and the Bulldogs took advantage, netting four-straight points to get within four at 54-50 with 6:52 to play. It was the Carolina defense that again shifted momentum, as Wilson knocked in a mid-range jumper 12 seconds after recording a block on the other end. The bucket made it 56-50, and a steal from Cliney on Mississippi State’s next possession led to points the other way for the Gamecocks when Cuevas-Moore found Gray for a layup that pushed the lead to 58-50 midway through the quarter.
Carolina began to pull away as Wilson imposed her will on both ends of the floor. A nice drive from the junior led to a layup that pushed the lead back to double-digits at 62-52, and she denied a bucket inside with her fourth block of the night with less than three minutes to play. Wilson went on to score her team’s next four points and secure the victory. The Hopkins, S.C., native powered her way into the paint before converting another layup, and a great put-back from Wilson secured the championship and handed Carolina a 66-52 lead with 1:39 left.
The Gamecocks shot 45.4 percent from the floor and held Mississippi State to just 2-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc. Carolina boasted a 40-27 rebound advantage and connected on 17 of their 22 free throw attempts.