Top overall seed South Carolina brings NSU women’s historic season to an end in first round of NCAA Tournament

Norfolk State’s historic season came to an unfortunate end Friday.

The No. 16 seed Spartans ran into a buzz saw in the form of No. 1 overall seed and defending national champion South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, losing 72-40.

Norfolk State ends a season that included its first MEAC Tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years with a 26-7 record. It’s the most victories NSU has posted in its Division I era.

Spartans coach Larry Vickers said South Carolina’s depth was the key difference between the teams, and the main reason the Gamecocks were so dominant.

“[South Carolina] is as good as you expect them to be. And they just keep running, running them out, running them out,” Vickers said. “In the third period, we began to get a little gassed and then they just bring [Sania Feagin]. It was like [Aliyah] Boston, Kamilla Cardoso were just wearing us down, wearing us down, wearing us down and then they throw [Feagin] in to finish us. That kind of depth, you can’t kind of simulate in practice.”

Every player on South Carolina’s roster logged playing time and all but one scored.

Norfolk State’s starters averaged 27 minutes, while the Gamecocks’ starters averaged only 18.

“Me being the one that was guarding Aliyah Boston and [Kamilla] Cardoso, yes, I did feel it,” sophomore forward Kierra Wheeler said. “It was definitely a challenge. But when I did feel that fatigue, I told my teammates, ‘I’m going to need your help down here. I’m boxing them out, but you got to come grab the rebound.’ And I think they put in more effort to come down there and help me.”

The Spartans were able to keep the score respectable early with a combination of rebounding and missed South Carolina opportunities.

Despite a massive height disadvantage, Norfolk State had 23 rebounds at the half, one fewer than South Carolina.

“I felt like in the first half we did a pretty good job on the offensive glass, and then in the second half, just fatigue kind of set in,” Vickers said.

Norfolk State finished the game with 33 rebounds compared to South Carolina’s 49.

South Carolina’s missed opportunities in the first half mainly came at the free-throw line, where the Gamecocks went 9 of 18. South Carolina finished 25 of 41 for the game.

Norfolk State wasn’t able to take advantage of the missed opportunities in the first quarter. The Gamecocks outscored the Spartans 20-7 in the first quarter as NSU shot only 14% from the field.

Senior guard Deja Francis helped sparked a light for NSU in the second quarter. On back-to-back possessions, she helped facilitate turnovers that led to points, prompting South Carolina coach Dawn Staley to call a timeout.

Francis finished the game with eight points and, at just 5-foot-7, was second on the team in rebounds with seven.

“I mean, it’s always heart over height,” Francis said. “Just going out there and finding the ball. It came to me and I was thankful that it did, but once again it was just battling and going after it.”

Wheeler and fellow sophomore Niya Fields led the Spartans. Wheeler finished with 13 points and eight rebounds and Fields had 10 points and five rebounds.

Both plan to take this experience into next season in hopes of returning to the tournament again.

“Me and Niya have a great connection, us being sophomores together,” Wheeler said. “This is my first year with her, so for us to have that connection already is amazing. We just know, with this experience, we’re gonna carry it into next year so that the people coming in next year and our teammates know we mean business. We want to get back here with a different result next year.”

The Spartans’ shooting improved as the game went on. After a cold first quarter, NSU shot above 30% in the second quarter and above 40% in the fourth quarter.

South Carolina opened last season’s NCAA Tournament against MEAC Tournament champion Howard and held the Bison to 21 points. Norfolk State had 18 at the half and reached 21 midway through the third quarter.

South Carolina advances to play South Florida in the second round on Sunday.

Michael Sauls,, Twitter @mcsauls