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4 takeaways from a potential Final Four matchup: South Carolina still perfect after heavyweight clash with LSU

South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) and forward Ashlyn Watkins (2) celebrate as LSU guard Aneesah Morrow (24) walks down court in the final moments of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. South Carolina won 76-70. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
South Carolina guard Bree Hall (23) and forward Ashlyn Watkins (2) celebrate in the final moments of their win over LSU on Thursday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It was a slap of the arm and ensuing whistle that shifted the tide in a meeting of No. 1 South Carolina and No. 9 LSU that lived up to the hype.

After Hailey Van Lith turned the ball over on an LSU inbound pass, Angel Reese chased down Raven Johnson in an attempt to keep the South Carolina guard from tying the game. But with four minutes left in regulation, she hit Johnson’s arm from behind and committed her fifth foul.

Johnson tied the game on free throws and South Carolina went on to win, 76-70. The Gamecocks are the last undefeated team in both women’s and men’s Division I basketball.

The game fully established South Carolina (18-0, 6-0 SEC) and LSU (18-3, 5-2), the two most recent national champions, as clear Final Four contenders. The win might have locked in South Carolina as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament as chaos reigns below them in the Associated Press poll and most conference standings. A tight game from LSU proved the Tigers' influx of transfers are melding together just fine as the season progresses from an opening loss against Colorado.

“Losing to South Carolina the way we did sent a message that we’re not going away,” LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said.

They could meet two more times if the brackets align in the SEC tournament, where they’re likely to be the top two seeds, and in the NCAA tournament. Here are the key takeaways for the SEC favorites.

Reese’s foul trouble hurts LSU late

Reese fouling out provided two keys for the rest of LSU’s season and its chances at a repeat national championship. First: Reese is still a crucial piece for the Tigers alongside transfer Aneesah Morrow in the frontcourt.

Reese and Morrow combined for 18 rebounds as LSU out-rebounded South Carolina by a decent margin most of the game despite being undersized against 6-foot-7 South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso. LSU had a 33-27 edge on the boards through three quarters until South Carolina won the fourth, 12-4, largely with Reese on the bench.

LSU’s ability to rebound on the offensive end is what put South Carolina into an 11-point hole early, tying the largest deficit of its undefeated season. The Gamecocks almost couldn’t pull out of it. The Tigers were +9 on the boards in the first half and 10-3 on the offensive end.

Reese was key in quieting Cardoso, who scored 11 points while shooting 5-of-11 with eight rebounds and was largely ineffective in the first half. Freshman 6-6 center Aalyah Del Rosario, who provided clutch minutes in the first half, went in for Reese after the fifth foul.

LSU forward Angel Reese (10) blocks a shot by South Carolina forward Chloe Kitts (21) in the first half an NCAA college basketball game in Baton Rouge, La., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
LSU forward Angel Reese (10) fouled out with 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

LSU’s depth could prove problematic

Secondly, Reese's absence also highlighted the lack of depth LSU has after an injury to sophomore guard Sa’Myah Smith and Kateri Poole’s exit from the roster. Four of five starters played at least 19 of the 20 first-half minutes, whereas South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley went nine deep.

Flau’jae Johnson (10 points, 4-6 FGs) played all 40 minutes. Van Lith (13 points) and Mikaylah Williams (12 points, six assists) each played 38, And Morrow (16 points, 10 rebounds) played 34. Reese only played 29 with foul trouble, and Mulkey opted to take a timeout in the fourth while Reese was cramping. It’s something the forward dealt with during last season’s NCAA tournament.

LSU hasn’t played a tough non-conference schedule and the SEC doesn’t appear, at least now, to be one of the more competitive conferences. When the games are tougher and more tightly comtested, depth might pose an issue. Especially if anyone on the roster is in foul trouble. The Tigers, who had a well-balanced attack, simply can’t afford to lose anyone.

South Carolina knows how to win close games

South Carolina has only lost one game over the past two seasons and that was the Final Four ouster by Iowa. The Gamecocks entered Thursday’s game winning by an average of 36.8 points (LSU is second at 30.2 ppg). Their only games closer than 16 points were wins over North Carolina, which put them into their season-high 11-point deficit, and Utah. They won by seven and nine, respectively.

Still, this program knows how to finish out close games. There are new faces in the starting lineup, but they’ve been in close spots before coming off the bench.

“It’s circumstances,” Staley said. “We’re going to play for 40 minutes no matter what the score is, no matter if we’re down double digits, or up double digits big. We try to respect the game, we try to respect our opponents and we try to find ways to close that gap.”

Mulkey noted this differentiator on the ESPN broadcast ahead of the fourth quarter when LSU led by two possessions.

“They’ve been in these situations,” Mulkey said. “We haven’t.”

Even on off night, Gamecocks deliver from deep

South Carolina didn’t bring its full intensity until the second half but found ways to close the gap when it could. That hinged largely on hitting from the perimeter, where South Carolina leads the country in 3-point percentage (43.5%) for the first time in Staley’s tenure. The Gamecocks had never hit better than 34.9% until this year.

Point guard Te-Hina Paopao, a transfer from Oregon, hit a 3 in the final seconds of the first quarter to keep the deficit a manageable six. She’s a 53.6% 3-point shooter, but was only 2-of-7 against LSU.

MiLaysia Fulwiley hit one in the final possession of the second to cut the deficit to five going into the break. The freshman scored eight points with four rebounds in 10 minutes of action, but did enough off the bench. South Carolina’s four-player bench outscored LSU’s two players, 16-4.

Junior Bree Hall drilled two 3s within the final three minutes, both of which broke ties, to lead South Carolina to the win. She had hit two of her eight field goals up to that point.

It was tough against Reese and Morrow, but South Carolina needs more from Cardoso. Chloe Kitts played well, especially early, but Cardoso will need to establish herself early and often in big games with quicker decision making and a larger defensive presence.