Now boarding: Boston to Dallas; #Gamecocks punch ticket to third straight Final Four (AUDIO)

Brea Beal and the Gamecocks are headed to a third straight Final Four (Ryan Bethea)

BON SECOURS WELLNESS ARENA: Maryland came out swinging and landed some significant blows in the early going, but as the game (fight) wore on, South Carolina made the necessary adjustments, counterpunching its way to the Final Four with an 86-75 victory in Greenville, Monday.

The Terrapins trapped and pressed out of the gate, forcing the tempo and taking a 21-15 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Gamecocks adapted to the pace and tightened defensively, holding Maryland to nine second-quarter points to take a 38-30 lead into the half. With the Terps employing a zone, Zia Cooke dashed and darted into the lane for nine points in the period to spark her team’s rally. Cooke played with energy throughout the night, finishing with 18 points and eight rebounds.

USC’s heavy hitter, Aliyah Boston, had her best game of the tournament. After averaging a modest 8.7 points per game against the first three NCAA Tournament opponents, Boston got aggressive against the Terps’ undersized frontcourt. The reigning Player of the Year excelled from the high post, finishing with 22 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two blocks.

Head coach Dawn Staley and her staff moved Boston around to neutralize double-teams. “She was great. We made some adjustments between the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. We just weren’t going to sit her on the block and allow people to just play physical and guard her with two and three people,” Staley said. “We moved her around, and because we moved her around, she was a moving target. It was hard for them to double her because they weren’t doubling her from the perimeter. She was just all over the place. But she was due for one of these big games.”

Cooke was named to the Regional All-Tournament team and Boston was named the Region’s Most Outstanding Player. Brea Beal joined Cooke and Boston on the All-Tournament team after filling up the stat sheet with 16 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.

The atmosphere also played a role, with the Gamecocks fans making “The Well” feel like a home game for the defending champs, raising the decibel level whenever the Terps looked vulnerable. A case in point was during a third quarter sequence when Kamilla Cardoso helped USC put the game out of reach. With Boston operating from the high post, Cardoso found space to operate on the low block and drew roars from the crowd with back-to-back baskets. On the first, a pinpoint pass from Boston left Cardoso free and clear for an easy bucket. The next trip down, Cardoso drove the baseline and finished with a reverse layup, sending the Gamecocks crowd into a frenzy and forcing a Maryland timeout.

Terrapins star Diamond Miller was as good as advertised, scoring 24 points. But there was no stopping the Gamecocks, who shot 50% from the floor in the second half to punch their ticket to a third consecutive Final Four.

South Carolina (36-0) will next head to Dallas to square off with Iowa in the national semifinal at 9 p.m., Friday.

Final Stats

Zia Cooke attacked Maryland with the drive and an array of jumpers for 18 points (Ryan Bethea)

Gamecocks postgame press conference

Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks are headed to Dallas to defend their title (Ryan Bethea)

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