South Carolina women reach 10th straight Sweet 16, beat North Carolina 88-41 in March Madness

North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart, center, watches her team play against South Carolina during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

North Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart, center, watches her team play against South Carolina during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the women’s NCAA Tournament in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Freshmen MiLaysia Fulwiley and Tessa Johnson aren’t waiting for their turn. They’re grabbing the opportunity to lead the way for undefeated South Carolina in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Fulwiley scored 20 points, Johnson had 11 and the pair combined for seven of the top-seeded Gamecocks’ nine 3-pointers in an 88-41 win over No. 8 seed North Carolina on Sunday that sent South Carolina to its 10th straight Sweet 16.

“They see themselves as being integral parts of our success,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “And they didn’t back down from it.”

Kamilla Cardoso had 12 points and 10 rebounds in her return from a one-game suspension after she was ejected for fighting during the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game two weeks ago. The 6-foot-7 center missed her team’s March Madness opener against Presbyterian on Friday.

Fulwiley, the SEC Tournament MVP, and Johnson fueled a first-quarter surge for South Carolina (34-0) that quickly turned the game into a runaway. Fulwiley started it with a behind-the-back layup before Johnson made consecutive rainbow 3s. Fulwiley added another 3-pointer as part of a 43-11 run that gave the Gamecocks a 56-19 lead at the break.

Fulwiley knows she’s among the most promising young players in the game along with Southern California’s JuJu Watkins, Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo and Texas’ Madison Booker. But Fulwiley’s bigger priority is blending in with her talented Gamecocks teammates.

“I think this team, we do a great job of just playing for each other,” she said. “I think we don’t play for the fans and all the other extra stuff. I think everything we do out on the court is for each other.”

South Carolina will carry that bond into the Sweet 16 to face No. 4 seed Indiana or No. 5 seed Oklahoma on Friday in the Albany 1 Region.

The Gamecocks, at full strength and playing like their potent selves, were too much for the Tar Heels, who had lost by single digits in the teams’ previous two meetings, most recently on Nov. 30.

Chloe Kitts, a South Carolina sophomore who hit all nine of her field goals for 21 points in the first round, scored 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting in the first half of this one. She finished with 12 points and has made 13 of 14 shots in the tournament.

North Carolina got no closer than 31 points in the final two quarters. Maria Gadkeng, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds in Friday’s win over Michigan State, picked up three first-half fouls. Alyssa Ustby led North Carolina with 12 points.

Leading scorer Deja Kelly had two fouls and five of the Tar Heels’ 11 first-half turnovers. She was held to seven points on 2-of-13 shooting.

“I felt like I had two people on me at all times,” Kelly said.

North Carolina was held to the fewest points in its 81-game NCAA Tournament history. The Tar Heels’ previous low was a 55-46 loss to George Washington at the old Carolina Coliseum in Columbia 27 years ago.

The Gamecocks extended their program record with their 59th straight win at home in their final game of the season at Colonial Life Arena, where they averaged an NCAA-best 16,489 fans.

CARDOSO’S RETURN

Staley said Cardoso felt she had let her teammates down with her suspension for shoving LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson to the ground in the SEC title game. But hearing the fans cheer her return Sunday lightened her mood.

“I’m so happy she got over that part of it and we can move on,” Staley said.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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