Saturday March Madness: South Carolina will be perfect

GREENVILLE, S.C. — UCLA opened its women’s regional semifinal against South Carolina with a defensive strategy that almost every team has tried this season against the undefeated Gamecocks. The Bruins sat in a zone defense, dropping their guards down the free-throw line to help them defend against South Carolina’s tall forwards.

South Carolina shot 38 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, but UCLA couldn’t convert the defending champion’s woes into points, falling 59-43 to send the Gamecocks to the Round of 8.

South Carolina capitalized on second-chance opportunities to stifle the Bruins’ offense, and its star forward Aaliyah Boston led the way with 8 points, 14 rebounds and 2 blocks.

During the first three games of this combined regional at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Friday and Saturday, large crowds filled only the areas near midcourt, leaving most of the stadium empty. That changed on Saturday afternoon. By the time Maryland and Notre Dame had finished and South Carolina had begun, fans in Garnet T-shirts filled the arena. They roared their team’s every score and cheered anything in favor of fourth-ranked UCLA

The arena is considered a neutral regional site by the NCAA, but effectively serves as the home game for South Carolina, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Corey Close, UCLA’s coach, acknowledged the disadvantages before the game, but said regional sites are “important to continue to grow our game.”

“Look at how many upsets we had on home courts in the first two rounds,” he said. “So the bottom line is you’ve got to play your best basketball, and you’ve got to be a tough team, you’ve got to be a team, and you’ve got to find ways to win.”

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UCLA seemed poised to threaten South Carolina’s quest for a second straight title. When the teams played in November, Gamecox overcame a first-half deficit to win by 9 runs. After the game, South Carolina coach Dan Staley told Close they would see each other again.

Staley’s words were wise, but this match was never close. South Carolina proved why it was the best team in Division I all season, with the height and physicality to overwhelm UCLA.

South Carolina faces Maryland on Monday.

When Notre Dame and Maryland met in December, the game quickly became the Diamond Miller show. Miller, a 6-foot-3 guard, scored his 31st point in the A Game-winning, one-foot fadeaway jumper. She ran around Notre Dame’s home court with her index finger to her lips to silence the crowd.

On Saturday, in the Round of 16 of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame’s Miller looked hellbent on stopping the show. The Fighting Irish were double-teamed — and sometimes triple-teamed — when Miller picked the ball up in the post.

But Notre Dame’s stop-Miller-at-all-costs strategy allowed other players to take advantage of open looks and keep the game close while Miller struggled. In the second half, Miller finally got into a groove and second-seeded Maryland beat No. 3 seed Notre Dame 76-59. Maryland will advance to its first Round-of-8 appearance since 2015. Miller and guard Shianne Sellers led all scorers with 18 points apiece.

“I felt like they were daring me to shoot,” said Maryland guard Lavender Briggs, who scored 12 points.

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Notre Dame threw the first figurative punch of the game. Down by 5, the Fighting Irish scored 13 straight points in the second quarter, neutralizing Miller and forcing Maryland’s half-court offense into forced shots and errant passes.

But in the second half, Miller loosened up. Maryland responded with a big third quarter run by Miller and Sellers. Maryland cruised in fourth.

Despite the eight-year drought, the Round of 8 is familiar to Maryland and its coach Brenda Frase. Since he started in 2002, Maryland has been one of the best teams in college basketball. The Terrapins advanced to the Round of 8 six times and won the program’s only national title in 2006.

Women’s competition

  • No. 2 Yukon v. No. 3 Ohio State, in progress, ABC

  • No. 1 Virginia Tech vs. No. 4 at Tennessee, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

Men’s competition

  • No. 3 Kansas State vs. No. 9 at Florida Atlantic, 6 p.m., TPS

  • No. 3 Gonzaga vs. no. 4 UConn, 8:50 p.m., DPS

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