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N.C.A.A. Tournament Women’s Final Four: A First-Timer Crashes a Group of Powers

McDonald, the Pac-12 player of the year, is helping Coach Adia Barnes recreate some of the same tournament magic that Barnes led during her own Wildcat career, when the program reached its first Sweet Sixteen. With the win against Indiana, Barnes became only the second former W.N.B.A. player to lead a team to the Final Four — the first being Dawn Staley, who is also back in the semifinals on the opposite side of the bracket with South Carolina.

McDonald’s impact is unmatched among her teammates, although senior forward Trinity Baptiste has given the team some much-needed size and contributed a double-double against Indiana. The team plays relentless, high-energy defense that allows the Wildcats to force a lot of turnovers, especially against teams that might underestimate them.

“We just need this confidence and momentum going into UConn,” McDonald said of the team’s Final Four matchup. “UConn, we already know what they’re about: powerhouse, well-coached, skillful players. But hey, I got my chances with my teammates. Ride or die, I’m going to war with them.”

When the Gamecocks won their first title in 2017, they had the best player in the country in A’ja Wilson, the 2020 W.N.B.A. most valuable player. Staley looked ready to claim another trophy last season, going 32-1 thanks to a slew of young talent that didn’t yet have statues in Columbia, S.C., but were good enough that it seemed like it would only be a matter of time until they did.

Then the pandemic hit, and the Gamecocks’ momentum was at least temporarily stifled. This season, they lost four times — all to ranked teams, but still showing some of the immaturity of their young core.

“When we got knocked down four times this season, they got back up stronger, and I like that,” Staley said in a television interview after Tuesday’s win against Texas. “They haven’t even scratched the surface of how good they can be. We’re happy but we’re not done yet.”

With its 28-point victory over No. 6-seeded Texas, the program had its largest win in the N.C.A.A. tournament since that 2017 title run — and held the Longhorns to the lowest point total in the Elite Eight or later. That defense was driven by 6-foot-5 center Aliyah Boston, who had two blocks and two steals along with eight rebounds.

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