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South Carolina pulls away from Virginia, 66-56, to earn trip to NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16

With A’ja Wilson’s Columbia finale and Dawn Staley’s first win over her alma mater, it was an emotional night.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It was only fitting that in a physical game coming down to the wire, A’ja Wilson would step up and lead the way.

The three-time SEC Player of the Year led all scorers with 25 points and added 11 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks to power South Carolina’s push past the 10th-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, 66-56, on Sunday night. It was a vintage performance for the senior in her home finale, and one the Gamecocks needed against the tough Cavaliers.

The Gamecocks entered halftime with a 30-25 lead, and pushed that to a 12-point advantage in the third quarter. But Virginia made its run, narrowing the deficit to 46-40, and continued to stay in reach of South Carolina in the fourth quarter, trailing 52-47 with about six minutes to play.

Enter Ty Harris and Doniyah Cliney, who teamed up for this incredible assist and 3-pointer combo to give the Gamecocks some breathing room:

Wilson scored the final four points to close out the Cavaliers. She also came just short of making her first dunk attempt after she snagged an athletic steal off a Virginia inbounds, taking it the length of the floor for a bucket on the other end. With a trailing defender, she didn’t quite have the space to go up strong, but if her grin after the okay was any indication, it had definitely been on her mind.

When Wilson finally left the game with a few seconds left, 10,037 fans lavished her with a standing ovation. If this didn’t make you at least a little misty, I don’t believe it:

Alexis Jennings (10 points), Harris (10), and Bianca Jackson (13) joined Wilson in double figures. Jackson posted her second double-figure game in NCAA Tournament play. South Carolina enjoyed a 30-16 advantage in points in the paint, and outrebounded Virginia 41-31.

The third time was the charm for coach Dawn Staley, who got her first win against her alma mater. The Gamecocks are making their fifth straight Sweet 16 appearance.

Up next is a date with the winner of Florida State-Buffalo in Albany, N.Y., as the NCAA Tournament shifts locations for the final few rounds. A possible Elite Eight rematch with No. 1 UConn is looming.