What we learned: NC State’s star duo is showing out, South Carolina is struggling to close

  • ESPN

Mar 31, 2024, 05:43 PM ET

The nation’s only undefeated college basketball team among men or women is back in the Final Four. No. 1 seed South Carolina fended off No. 3 seed Oregon State on Sunday to move on to Cleveland.

The Gamecocks earned their fourth consecutive trip to the national semifinals with a 70-58 win in Region 1 in Albany.

In Cleveland on April 5, South Carolina will face NC State after the Wolfpack upset No. 1 seed Texas in Portland 76-66. It will be NC State’s first trip to the Final Four in 26 years (1998).

The rest of the Final Four will take shape Monday. No. 1 seed Iowa and third-seeded LSU will meet in the Region 2 final (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Albany, a 2023 national title game rematch with a Final Four berth at stake. The game comes almost exactly a year after LSU beat Iowa on April 2, 2023, for last season’s championship.

In Region 3 in Portland on Monday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), freshman JuJu Watkins leads top-seeded USC into the Elite Eight against Paige Bueckers and 3-seed UConn. The Trojans seek their first Final Four since 1986, while the Huskies are looking to get back to the national semifinals a year after their NCAA-record streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances was snapped.

Here’s what we learned in each Elite Eight game — and how we reseeded the field ahead of the regional finals.

Live projections: ESPN’s March Madness forecast



NC State rides hot first half to Final Four berth

Aziaha James’ five first-half 3s power the Wolfpack to their second Final Four berth in school history.

Region 4 in Portland: No. 3 seed NC State 76, No. 1 Texas 66

How did NC State become the first team to knock off a No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament? The Wolfpack started Sunday’s game running — literally. NC State outscored Texas 16-0 in transition during the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information, opening up the largest lead anyone had taken against the Longhorns all season — as big as 18 points late in the second quarter.

The Wolfpack’s star duo of Aziaha James and Saniya Rivers led the way, scoring or assisting on all but two of NC State’s fast-break points. And when Texas was able to keep the Wolfpack out of transition, James’ shooting was a difference-maker in the half court. Her seven 3-pointers were both a career high and a record for an NC State player in a women’s NCAA tournament game. James outscored Texas 21-3 from 3-point range all by herself.

By switching to a zone late in the third quarter, the Longhorns were able to disrupt the Wolfpack’s rhythm. Texas managed to get the deficit down to six with 1:06 remaining in the period, but James followed with a 3 and the Longhorns never again closed to within a two-score margin.

In the end, Texas couldn’t keep up with an NC State team that got 27 points from James, 16 from center River Baldwin and had three other players in double figures. The Longhorns dropped to 0-3 this season when allowing at least 76 points, compared with 33-2 when holding opponents below that mark.

The result: Two years after a heartbreaking double-OT loss to UConn in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the Elite Eight, the Wolfpack and coach Wes Moore are headed to the Final Four for the first time since the legendary late Kay Yow led them there 26 years ago.

What’s next for NC State? After pulling off a pair of upsets in the regionals, the Wolfpack face even longer odds in their first trip to the Final Four since 1998. They’ll have to take down undefeated No. 1 overall seed South Carolina on Friday to keep this run rolling into the championship game in a week.

There’s reason for NC State to believe it can follow in the footsteps of Iowa a year ago by knocking off an undefeated Gamecocks team in the national semifinals. Success in the NCAA tournament is driven by strong guard play, and no backcourt in the country is hotter than the Wolfpack’s duo of James and Rivers.

Although none of NC State’s current players was on the roster then, Moore did direct the Wolfpack’s upset of a South Carolina team that would reach the Final Four on the road back in December 2020. NC State played close against the Gamecocks again the following year, losing 66-57 in November 2021 at home.

One key factor to watch on Friday: Whether Baldwin can avoid foul trouble against South Carolina’s 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso. Although Baldwin did not foul out of a game this season, her minutes were limited by four fouls in both games during the regionals. NC State survived that but might not have the same success facing the Gamecocks.

What’s next for Texas: All eyes will be on the return of point guard Rori Harmon from an ACL tear suffered in late December. Aaliyah Moore managed to come back from her own ACL tear on Nov. 24, having missed the season’s first five games. A similar timetable would put Harmon back on the court before the start of conference play — now in the SEC.

As well as the Longhorns compensated for Harmon’s loss, winning their final Big 12 tournament and earning a No. 1 seed, they’re undoubtedly better with the nation’s most complete two-way point guard running the offense and supplying defensive pressure. Harmon’s return will shift Big 12 Player of the Year Madison Booker back to an off-ball role, giving Texas a big three on offense rounded out by forward Aaliyah Moore.

The Longhorns will lose an important starter in BYU transfer Shaylee Gonzales, but add a pair of recruits ranked in the espnW top 10. Thanks to those additions and Harmon’s impending return, Vic Schaefer’s squad will be favored to take the next step after three Elite Eight losses in the past four years. — Kevin Pelton



South Carolina remains undefeated, advances to Final Four

South Carolina defeats Oregon State 70-58 to head to the Final Four.

Region 1 in Albany: No. 1 seed South Carolina 70, No. 3 seed Oregon State 58

Should South Carolina be concerned that it has struggled to close out its past two games? After nearly blowing a 22-point lead in the Sweet 16 to Indiana, South Carolina almost blew a 14-point lead to Oregon State. South Carolina even let Oregon State get within four with 3:40 to play before ending on an 8-0 run. South Carolina took questionable jump shots and struggled to get the ball inside to Kamilla Cardoso — who had a big size advantage on Raegan Beers and an opportunity to get Beers to foul out of the game.

The good news for South Carolina is it dominated completely in the paint, even without feeding Cardoso, outscoring Oregon State 44-14. But from the perimeter? South Carolina attempted 78 shots, 23 more than Oregon State. Yet South Carolina made only six more field goals, shooting 33%. On the other end, the Gamecocks have struggled two games in a row to defend the 3-point shot — uncharacteristic for a team known for its defensive prowess. Indiana hit 13 3-pointers, while Oregon State hit eight.

If South Carolina looked invincible in the first two rounds, back-to-back shaky second-half performances should be cause for concern considering how much higher the stakes will be in Cleveland.

What it means for South Carolina: South Carolina becomes the seventh program to reach the Final Four in four straight seasons, joining UConn, Stanford, Notre Dame, LSU, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech). No matter who else advances, the No. 1 ranked Gamecocks will head into the Final Four as the heavy favorites to win their third national championship. Not only do they move to 36-0 this season — the only undefeated team left in basketball — they are a Division I best 72-1 since the start of last season. Of course, the only loss came to Iowa in last year’s national semifinals — a loss that the returning South Carolina players have not forgotten. Their quest to finish this season with a title has been made clear.

What it means for Oregon State: Oregon State was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 preseason poll and ended up making it to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2018. No matter the disappointment the Beavers feel from the loss, only one team in school history has gone further. This team has no seniors, but the big question is whether coach Scott Rueck will be able to keep everyone together for next season as Oregon State moves into the West Coast Conference as a result of realignment. — Andrea Adelson