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South Carolina escaped a nervous Sweet 16 finish with a familiar formula: 'How can you guard us?'

ALBANY, N.Y. — The Gamecocks survived the way they are used to thriving. They spread the task out across the roster.

South Carolina didn’t turn to one star as it clung to a slim five-point lead that was as many as 22 early in the third quarter of a Sweet 16 matchup with Indiana. Over the final 2:03, Kamilla Cardoso finished a layup, Raven Johnson drilled a clutch 3-pointer, Tessa Johnson added a free throw and Ashlyn Watkins forcefully denied a corner 3 attempt.

Every time Indiana cut the lead, a different Gamecock answered to lead the No. 1 overall seed to the Elite Eight, 79-75, in their closest margin of the season.

“That’s us. That’s what we do,” Watkins told Yahoo Sports. “All season, at the preseason, during the season and at the tournament time, we always play together. That showed today.”

Indiana head head coach Teri Moren said on Thursday she planned for South Carolina as if it had 10 starters. Only three Gamecock players average double-digits. Seven average more than eight a game.

The Gamecocks led by 17 at the half in what appeared to be another runaway after outscoring their first two tournament opponents by a combined 99 points. It was, once again, a well-balanced performance, with nine players seeing at least seven minutes of action and scoring at least two points. When the Hoosiers crowded or sent help on the 6-foot-7 Cardoso, it left shooters open everywhere.

It took a full team effort for South Carolina to pull off a narrow win over Indiana on Friday, but Kamilla Cardoso (10) stood out among the rest. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
It took a full team effort for South Carolina to pull off a narrow win over Indiana on Friday, but Kamilla Cardoso (10) stood out among the rest. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) (Andy Lyons via Getty Images)

“You can't just shut one player down on our team,” Raven Johnson said. “We have threats from all over the court. We have threats on the bench, also. It's hard to guard our team because we just bring different weapons, and I think when it comes to scouting us, we can shoot from the outside, we can dominate in the paint, we have drivers, everything.

“How can you guard us? That's how I look at it.”

That didn’t sit well with South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley on the other end of the interview table. That 17-point lead, which grew to 22 at the 7:30 mark of the third, evaporated. The Hoosiers pulled back to within 10 by the final 10 minutes and made it a two-point stress fest with less than a minute on the clock.

“I mean, we gave up a 17 or 20-point lead,” Staley said with a sharp inhale and look across Bree Hall in between them.

“I think we were just tired,” Johnson said, drawing another Staley look and laughter from Hall, who mumbled something to her.

This is how the Gamecocks play ball. They’re loose — maybe sometimes too loose — but confident. They spread the ball around, rely on the force of a team that rolls so deep the waves of defensive pressure and offensive firepower don’t stop. There is no break for an opponent.

“Anyone can go out and make a play,” SC guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “Anyone can start on any team in the country on this team, but we chose to sacrifice that and be with each other.”

Cardoso controlled the game most of the way for South Carolina, nearing her career-high of 24 points as a freshman at Syracuse. She finished 10-of-12 for 22 points, one shy of her career-high with South Carolina set this season. When Indiana hit its 13th and final 3-pointer at the 2:24 mark to cut the deficit to four, Cardoso answered in the paint on the other end. South Carolina outscored Indiana, 42-36, in that area and held fifth-year All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes to 12 points.

Sydney Parrish, who scored a team-high 21 with five 3s for the Hoosiers, hit two free throws and Holmes drove in for two to cut it down again. On the ensuing inbound play, Raven Johnson fed Cardoso inside, pulling Johnson’s defender down. Cardoso immediately passed it back out and Johnson drilled a clutch 3 for a more comfortable lead. The play call, she joked, was to “get the ball in the basket.”

“I was open, and all I could think was, let it go. I don't want to lose,” Johnson said. “Just going from last year. Nobody can sag off me this year, and I take that very personal. And I get in the gym every day and put up reps and I think that's where it comes from, the confidence.”

In the Final Four loss to Iowa last year, Caitlin Clark didn’t Johnson on the perimeter because of her struggles from deep. She finished 3-of-6 off the bench, but it fueled the sophomore’s revenge tour. Against Indiana, she hit all three 3s she attempted and went 5-of-7 for 14 points, second-most on the team. The entire team was 8-of-16, riding the 3 to an early lead as a weapon it didn’t possess in its undefeated regular season last year.

Staley said she mouthed “shoot it” when she saw how wide open Johnson was directly in front of her.

“Before that shot, I saw Raven's eyes when it was coming down the stretch and our lead was diminishing,” Staley said. “I knew she wasn't going to let us lose. I knew she was going to do something.”

So did freshman guard Tessa Johnson, who made her second free throw with 14 seconds left to bump the lead back up to four. It would take a foul on a 3 for Indiana to tie. When the Hoosiers attempted it by putting Yarden Garzon in the corner for a shot, Watkins streaked over for the block.

“Just play defense. That’s it,” Watkins said.

Staley said she wasn’t happy with the shot selection in the second half when South Carolina held a large lead. She didn’t learn anything new from her team, only what she’s already known, she said.

“I've got a resilient basketball team that they don't like losing,” Staley said. “They are able to make plays on both sides of the basketball through great play, through shoddy play, through having a lead, having built a lead and then getting it down to having it be a one-possession game, that they were able to play their way out of it. We are the habits that we've created, good and bad.”

Paopao said she hopes the close call “lights a fire under our butt” as it did after South Carolina nearly lost its undefeated season in the final possession of the SEC semifinal against Tennessee. When told of Staley’s comments about re-focusing the team between that tournament and the NCAA first round, she smiled wide. That time was a lull for the Gamecocks where they didn’t feel they were playing like themselves and sharing the ball.

“I’m smiling because we’ve come a long way,” Paopao said. “And in order to get through that little lull, we had to go through it together. It was hard, but at the end of the day we just kept winning and being there for each other. So I really hope today’s game locks us back in and gets us back to who we are.”

They are the well-balanced team that wins with production up and down the roster every night.