Cardoso's first career 3 saves South Carolina in the SEC Championship

GREENVILLE, N.C. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knew her first choice for a game-winning outside shot, T-Hina Paopao, would be bagged by Tennessee.

So from the sideline she demanded that her leading scorer, Camila Cardoso, do what she had hesitated her entire career: “Shoot!”

Cardoso finally listened, desperately coming back to the buzzer to hit her first-ever 3-pointer to salvage 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 few more words that I can't say,” Staley said of her order to Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 forward who had only attempted a long-range shot in her freshman career at Syracuse before that.

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

The Gamecocks (31-0) led by 23 points and trailed the Lady Vols (19-12) 73-71 with 1.1 seconds left.

“I knew that with the guys on the floor, the only one that was going to be open was Camilla,” Staley said. “So I just asked Raven (Johnson) to get the ball to Camila. And I said to Camila: 'Hey, pass it to Pawpaw,' and then at the last second I said: 'Camila, shoot it.'

Her jubilant classmates packed Cardoso as a large South Carolina crowd — the campus is only about a 100-mile drive from Greenville Arena — cheered in celebration.

“I was very happy with the confidence of my teammates,” Cardoso said. “I didn't play the best game I could have played all night. I was happy I was able to hit the ground running and get them to the finals.”

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Cardoso was playing in front of her mother and sister, who came from Brazil to celebrate graduation 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 are advancing to their ninth tournament final in the past 10 seasons and will be looking for their eighth title in that span against No. 8 LSU or Ole Miss.

Rekia Jackson finished with 22 points, 19 in the final two quarters, as Tennessee rallied from a 35-12 deficit late in the second quarter. Her setback with 25 seconds left gave the Lady Vols their first lead of the game.

The Lady Vols had a 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 hate it for them,” Tennessee coach Kelly Harper said, on the verge of tears as she talked about the loss.

South Carolina secured the rebound and got on the floor with no timeouts remaining. Tennessee, which wasn't in the free-throw bonus yet, fouled South Carolina near midcourt with 1.1 seconds left on the big play.

Joelle Speer added 21 points for the Lady Vols.

Things couldn't have started out better for South Carolina — or worse for the Lady Vols.

The Gamecocks took a 13-0 lead while Tennessee struggled to hit anything and missed its first 10 shots. South Carolina, behind the dynamic Folwile, eventually took a 35-12 lead and looked like it would put things away in the first half.

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

The Big Picture

Tennessee: A painful time for the Lady Vols, who gave South Carolina everything they had in three matchups all season but lost them all. Tennessee needs an extra break to overcome this disappointing result.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks haven't overcome a challenge like this all season and it's proven to be fruitful as they inch closer to their championship goals.

Alia influence

South Carolina's Staley credited Aliyah Boston's mother, Cleone, with her positive, faith-based messages to the Gamecocks even as her daughter exited the pros as the WNBA Rookie of the Year. Staley said Cleone Boston's influence helped her young team not give up during difficult moments like this.

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