With a calming presence in Bree Hall, South Carolina now two games from perfect season

ALBANY, N.Y. — Bree Hall motioned to her teammates as they came back on defense.

Settle down.

South Carolina was suddenly in a two-possession game against Oregon State with their Final Four hopes, and undefeated season, on the line at MVP Arena in Albany on Sunday. The Beavers climbed back from down 14 and momentum could have fully shifted their way at any moment.

Hall felt she didn’t do a good job as a leader of settling her team in the Sweet 16 against Indiana, which came back from 22 down to two. She focused on doing a better job on Sunday of calling teammates over to pull the defense together and reset the tone. It’s something she’s taken upon herself to do on a young team exceeding outside expectations.

“That has helped the team tremendously," Hall told Yahoo Sports. "Just being the calm during the storm for my teammates is something I feel like I’ve taken a role on.”

Within the hour, the junior guard cut down a piece of the net ahead of her third regional title. South Carolina locked down Oregon State over the final three minutes to win the Albany 1 regional title, 70-58, and advance to its fourth consecutive Final Four.

South Carolina's Bree Hall celebrates after the Gamecocks defeat Oregon State in the Elite Eight. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

“Each time we get an opportunity to knock down some nets to go to the Final Four is really special because you don't know when it's going to be the last time that you'll do it,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “More times than not, there are players on the team that didn't experience it.”

There are many on this squad that haven't experienced it after all five starters from the 2023 Final Four team graduated. South Carolina entered the season with a huge question mark because of that, but here Hall and her returning teammates are throwing confetti over each other for photos again.

“This one feels different just because this team is just something different,” Hall said. “Nobody expected us to be here. Our preseason ranking was No. 6. Nobody had been talking about us like that.”

Kamilla Cardoso, the Albany 1 Most Outstanding Player, controlled the paint for South Carolina, which out-rebounded Oregon State, 51-37, and won paint points, 44-14. She made it difficult for all-Pac-12 sophomore forward Raegan Beers, who had 16 points shooting 5 of 9 with eight rebounds and was named to the all-region team.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 senior played two years behind Naismith winner Aliyah Boston before taking over the starting role this year. Staley has wanted her to be more aggressive and in attack mode. Hall said she often is the calm person for Cardoso and feeds her encouragement on their way down the court.

“She just gets me out of my head and makes me confident in myself,” Cardoso said.

It was another balanced scoring effort for South Carolina. All nine players scored and played at least 11 minutes. It wasn’t the best offensive effort they’ve had, but the Gamecocks didn’t need it.

A brand-new face led the Gamecocks in points. Tessa Johnson scored 15 with two 3s in 20 minutes of action. She and Raven Johnson, a member of the all-region squad, had the highest plus/minus on the team (17). Oregon State kept it at a six-point margin down the back end of the fourth quarter until Tessa Johnson finished an and-1 that pushed it to nine and ultimately out of reach.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is interviewed by Holly Rowe after the Gamecocks defeated the Oregon State Beavers on Sunday. (Scott Taetsch/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Hall added one free throw down the stretch to finish with 10 points. She is one of only three returning upperclassmen from last season’s team alongside Cardoso and junior Sania Feagin. In the team’s first close game of the season, on Nov. 30 at North Carolina, Hall realized it was her job to be that calming presence that Staley often said Boston was for the team.

“I feel like everybody was really tense, really flustered, and I’m like, 'We’re good guys. We’re good,'” Hall said. “I’m trying to be that person to calm everybody down because I know everybody’s senses are really heightened.”

South Carolina won that game by seven, which is its second-closest margin of the season behind a six-point win against LSU. Their two closest have come in the postseason and two more tight games likely await next weekend.

There are few moments, if any, this team has shown any stress. Staley said she’s learned not to fight certain battles that aren’t related to the core principles of the program. This group has found its own way to get back to the Final Four.

“They play loose. They play free,” Staley said. “It's allowed them to kind of police themselves and to hold each other accountable.”