South Carolina tops LSU in an SEC title game marred by a bench-clearing brawl and a mass ejection

Camila Cardoso and Angel Reyes battle for a rebound in the first half of Sunday's SEC Championship game. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

South Carolina beat LSU for the SEC Championship on Sunday in a title game marred by mass ejections that have NCAA Tournament implications.

The top-ranked Gamecocks survived foul trouble from All-SEC center Kamilla Cardoso and then held on after a late-game scrimmage to take the 79-72 win. LSU finished with five eligible players and South Carolina six after a bench-clearing brawl that is expected to leave Cardoso ineligible for first-round NCAA Tournament play.

Cardozo pushes Johnson, and the seats clear

Things got heated in the final minutes when a fight broke out near the middle of the field. The players exchanged shoves after Cardozo pushed LSU's Flau'jae Johnson onto the field at the end of the play. Johnson had previously grabbed the thigh of South Carolina's Melisia Followey, provoking a reaction from Cardoso.

Players from both teams left the bench to join the brawl. A man jumped from the stands onto the scorer's table to join the brawl before security arrested him. ESPN reported that the man is Johnson's brother.

Game officials spent nearly 20 minutes reviewing the incident on a side screen before sorting things out. They intentionally fouled Johnson, then ejected Cardoso for fighting. They also sent off every player who left the bench.

LSU finished the game with Johnson, Angel Reyes, Hailey Van Lith, Michaela Williams and Anissa Morrow. South Carolina finished with Fulwaili, Ashlyn Watkins, Sanya Feigen, Bree Hall, Raven Johnson and Te-Hina Pawpaw. All other players were sent off.

South Carolina led 73-66 at the time of the incident and held on to win.

Staley and Cardoso apologize after the match

South Carolina coach Don Staley addressed the incident in a postgame interview with ESPN.

“I just want to apologize to the basketball community,” she said. “You know, when you play a championship game like this, things get heated in our league. There's no ill intentions. Their emotions pretty much preceded them. Sometimes these things happen.”

“I want to apologize because we played a part in that. That's not who we are, that's not who we are. But I'm happy for the players who were able to finish the game and give us another championship.”

She also shared an embrace with LSU's Johnson on the postgame sideline.

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Staley told reporters that Johnson had apologized To her for her role in the incident, a message Staley wanted to share with the public.

“She's a really good person.” Staley said of Johnson. “Things have just escalated.”

Meanwhile, Cardozo issued an apology on social media:

“I would like to offer my sincere apologies for my actions during today’s match,” Cardoso wrote. “My conduct was not representative of who I am as a person or the South Carolina program, and I am deeply sorry for any inconvenience or inconvenience this behavior may have caused.

He added: “I take full responsibility for my actions and assure you that I am committed to acting with the utmost respect and sportsmanship in the future.”

Kim Mulkey criticizes Cardoso

LSU coach Kim Mulkey condemned the 6-7 Cardoso for shoving the 5-10 Johnson on the floor.

“No one wants to be a part of that,” Mulkey said. “No one wants to see this ugliness.

“But I can tell you this. I wish she would have pushed Angel Reyes. Don't push a kid. You're 6 to 8 years old, don't push someone that simple. These two girls that were arguing, let them go to he-she.”

After the dust settled, the celebration of South Carolina's championship began. Players enjoyed confetti falling from the rafters before the Gamecocks cut down the nets. Fulwaili was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

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South Carolina players celebrate their SEC Championship.  (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)South Carolina players celebrate their SEC Championship.  (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

South Carolina players celebrate their SEC Championship. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

NCAA rule: The fight sees Cardoso ineligible for the next bout

According to the NCAA rule book, Cardoso is ineligible for South Carolina's next game due to ejection for fighting. South Carolina's next game will be in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Other players who were ejected will be eligible to play in their next game.

The language of the NCAA rule book It explains that players who engage in fighting will be suspended for the team's next match with little possibility of the fight being overturned:

art. 10. The first time an individual engages in a fight during the season (including exhibition games), the individual will be suspended from participating in the team's next regular season game (not an exhibition contest), including the championship contest.

art. 16. After the match, conference offices or the designated authority may correct an error about who participated in the fight, but cannot change the official's ruling that a fight occurred or reduce the severity of the penalty. The Conference Bureau or the responsible authority may increase these penalties.

Freshman Fulwiley comes in to keep South Carolina undefeated

South Carolina secured the win over the reigning NCAA champions despite Cardoso watching much of the game from the bench. She entered the second half with two fouls and earned a third 1:20 into the third quarter. She went to the bench with South Carolina leading 39-32 and did not return until the start of the fourth period. She missed the final 2:08 after being ejected.

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LSU cut its deficit just one point with Cardoso coming off the bench in the third as South Carolina entered the fourth quarter with a 59-53 lead. Folwile, a freshman guard, ignited the Gamecocks' offense in Cardoso's absence, scoring 10 of her game-high 24 points in the third period. Cardozo finished with eight points and six rebounds in 22 minutes.

Morrow led four LSU players in double figures with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Reese added 15 points and 13 rebounds. South Carolina outrebounded LSU 43.1% to 37.3% from the field and forced the 17 Tigers to overcome a 44-37 rebounding deficit.

Will South Carolina's perfect season come to an end?

As with last season, South Carolina enters the NCAA Tournament playing undefeated as the presumptive top seed, a status that has not translated into a national title. The Gamecocks fell to Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the Final Four last year for their first and only loss of the season before LSU went on to defeat Iowa in the national championship.

The Gamecocks will now go into a projected 1-16 matchup in the first round of the shortened NCAA Tournament with Cardoso expected to be suspended. With Sunday's loss, Angel Reese and the Tigers plan to enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed as they look to defend their championship.

South Carolina's win was its second of the season over LSU after a 76-70 win over the Tigers in January. The Gamecocks needed to rally from an 11-point first-half deficit in a regular-season win at LSU. There was no need to rally on Sunday as South Carolina opened up an 18-15 lead in the first quarter and did not trail for the rest of the game.

LSU cut a double-digit deficit to as close as 67-66 midway through the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run. Raven Johnson's bank shot halted LSU's rally, and the Tigers never took the lead.

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