The Cardinals were trailing by nine early in the fourth quarter on Friday night, and with most everything else failing, Louisville’s leading scorer and spark plug tried to make something happen.
Van Lith drove to her left, hoping to carve out a clear path to the basket. But in an instant, Brea Beal was on the scene. Using her quickness and a six-inch height advantage, the Gamecocks guard met Van Lith at the free-throw line and hounded her all the way to the hoop.
Van Lith tossed up an off-balance runner that caromed harmlessly off the backboard and into the arms of South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, who started a fast break that Beal finished on the other end with a layup.
That exchange typified most of the night for the Cardinals, who lost 72-59 in the NCAA women’s national semifinal. The Gamecocks’ defense, one of the best in the nation, proved to be too much for Louisville, which averaged 72.2 points per game this season but wilted under South Carolina’s pressure and tough matchups.
Beal and fellow guard Destanni Henderson pestered Van Lith all game, limiting her to just nine points on 4-for-11 shooting after she averaged 21.5 points over the first four games of the NCAA Tournament.
“They did a really good job of making it hard for me to even get the ball,” Van Lith said. “They obviously clearly were not going to let me get touches. They basically face-guarded me the whole game. They did a good job of executing that.”
Louisville isn’t the only team to buckle under South Carolina’s crushing defense. The Gamecocks finished the season rated third in the nation defensively, allowing just 50.5 points per game. They stepped up their efforts in the NCAA Tournament, smothering their opponents at a record pace.
“I think it’s just a mentality to have every single game,” Beal said. “You can’t just turn it on and turn it off when you choose to. … Especially now, you just have to lock in and know what your job is to do offensively and defensively.”
In their 79-21 victory over Howard in the first round, the Gamecocks gave up just four points in the first half — an NCAA Tournament first/second-round record, as was the 21 points overall allowed in a game.
South Carolina kept up the pressure in the second round, defeating Miami 49–33. The 54 points combined were fewest a team had ever allowed in the first two rounds of the tournament, beating the previous record by 17.
“We just like to be disruptive, take the first option away, the second option away and then have you play with a short shot clock,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said of her team’s defensive approach. “Not a whole lot of teams are super efficient in low-shot clock situations, so we try to put them in that, and then we rebound the basketball.”