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Cardoso's first-ever 3 rescues No. 1 South Carolina at SEC Tournament with 74-73 win over Lady Vols

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knew her first option for a game-winning, outside shot, Te-Hina Paopao, would be bottled up by Tennessee.

So she demanded from the sideline her leading scorer and rebounder, Kamilla Cardoso, do what she'd been reluctant to her whole career: “Shoot it!”

Cardoso finally listened, banking home a desperation shot at the buzzer for her first-ever 3-pointer to rescue No. 1 South Carolina's perfect season with a 74-73 win over the Lady Vols in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals on Saturday.

“I added a couple more words that I can't mention,” Staley said about her order to Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 forward who had only attempted one long-range shot in her career as a Syracuse freshman before this.

“Coach told Kamilla to shoot the ball and Kamilla shoots the ball with confidence,” said point guard Raven Johnson, who passed in to Cardoso at the top of the key.

The Gamecocks (31-0) had blown a 23-point lead and trailed the Lady Vols (19-12) 73-71 with 1.1 seconds left.

“I knew with the players we had on the floor, pretty much the only person who was going to be open was Kamilla," Staley said. "So I just told Raven (Johnson) to get the ball to Kamilla. And I told Kamilla, ‘Hey, pass it to (Te-Hina) Paopao,’ and then at the last second I was like, ‘Kamilla, shoot it.’”

Cardoso was mobbed by her joyous teammates as the large South Carolina crowd — the campus is only about a 100-mile drive from the Greenville arena — cheered in celebration.

“I was very happy my teammates believed in me,” Cardoso said. “I didn’t have best game I could have, off all night. I was happy I could make the shot and take them to the finals.”

Cardoso was playing in front of her mom and sister who came up from Brazil to celebrate senior day with her last weekend. This week was their first chance to see her play in person since she left the country at age 15.

The Gamecocks advance to their ninth tournament final in the past 10 seasons and will look for their eighth title in that span against No. 8 LSU, which beat Mississippi.

Rickea Jackson ended with 22 points, 19 in the final two quarters as Tennessee fought back from 35-12 down late in the second quarter. Her putback with 25 seconds left gave the Lady Vols their first lead of the game.

The Lady Vols had the chance to extend the lead with three seconds left, but Jasmine Powell, a 78% free throw shooter, missed both attempts to give South Carolina a chance.

“I just hate that for them,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, on the verge of tears talking about the loss.

South Carolina secured the rebound and with no timeouts left, went up the floor. Tennessee, which wasn't in the free throw bonus yet, fouled South Carolina near midcourt with 1.1 seconds left setting up the fantastic finish.

Jewel Spear added 21 points for the Lady Vols.

Things could not have started any better for South Carolina — or any worse for the Lady Vols.

The Gamecocks opened up a 13-0 lead while Tennessee struggled to hit anything, missing its first 10 shots. South Carolina, behind the dynamic Fulwiley, eventually led 35-12 and looked it would put things away by halftime.

But the Lady Vols finished the second quarter on an 11-1 run to cut the 23-point deficit to 36-23 at the break.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: Heartbreak time for the Lady Vols, who had given South Carolina everything it had in three meetings all season yet lost them all. Tennessee needs the extra time off simply to get past this disappointing result.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks had not overcome a challenge like this all season and it prove fruitful as they get closer to their championship goals.

ALIYAH'S INFLUENCE

South Carolina's Staley credited Aliyah Boston's mother, Cleone, with her positive, faith based messages to the Gamecocks even with her daughter off to the pros as WNBA rookie of the year. Staley said Cleone Boston's influence has helped her young team not give in during difficult moments like this.

UP NEXT

South Carolina will play for its eighth SEC Tournament title since 2015 on Sunday.

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball