**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth**
When Arizona State went on a wild and improbable 11-0 run to take a 68-67 lead on South Carolina with just two minutes remaining at Colonial Life Arena, Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley was not worried.
She knew her battle-tested team would pull through, and she knew why.
"When you are playing at home and have been in this situation, we didn't fret it," she said. "We just told our players this is where we want to be."
When the Gamecocks surged back in front on A'Ja Wilson's put-back with 46 seconds remaining and Arizona State's desperation shot fell short at the buzzer, Staley and her team felt all kinds of emotion.
She was relieved and elated, but mostly she was thankful.
"I'm thankful we got a chance to play at our place," said Staley, who stood at half court and saluted the home fans after her team advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season. "I think the results would have been different at another gym."
The No. 4 Gamecocks had all they could handle from a tough Arizona State team that was seeded eighth in the West Region but has NCAA Tournament experience and played like a much higher seed. Staley called the Sun Devils "dangerous" and the Pac 12 team nearly pulled off the upset.
The Sun Devils led 39-33 at the half, and then went on the late 11-0 run to take the lead and put a scare into the Gamecocks. But South Carolina got a big lift from junior guard Kaela Davis, who scored 15 of her 20 points in the second half, and of course Wilson, the SEC Player of the Year who scored the winning basket.
Davis, who stepped up big-time in the second half, said the 28-4 Gamecocks have played enough big games not to be worried in pressure situations.
"I think throughout the game, you have to be positive," she said. "You can never put yourself in a position to feel down. I think we just kept our heads down and didn't look at the score and just fought back."
"We prepare very well for situations like that," Wilson said. "I think we were prepared, and ... I think we handled it really well."
Despite being smothered by the ASU defense for much of the game, Wilson led South Carolina with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Davis added 20 points, 15 in the second half, and Allisha Gray had 11 before being carried off the court late in the game with an ankle injury.
South Carolina struggled in the first half, getting out-rebounded 18-11 and shooting just 41 percent, and trailed 39-33 at the break. But Davis scored scored seven points in the third quarter to spark a furious comeback.
Davis hit two free throws to cut the ASU lead to 53-49 and Doniyah Cliney converted a steal into a layup to pull South Carolina to within two at the end of the third quarter.
The Gamecocks took control early in the fourth quarter, tying it on two free throws by Davis and taking the lead on a put-back and three-point play by Wilson. South Carolina went on a 10-4 run to take a 63-57 lead.
The comeback was aided by a technical foul on ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne with 2:13 left in the quarter. Davis sank both free throws and Gray followed with a three-point play to put South Carolina up 63-57.
South Carolina stretched the lead to 67-57 on Davis' basket with 5:50 remaining, but ASU was not done. The Sun Devils responded with an 11-0 run to take the lead with two minutes remaining.
The Gamecocks looked to be in trouble but Wilson made perhaps the play of the game, grabbing her own rebound and scoring with 46.8 seconds remaining to give South Carolina the lead. ASU had a chance to regain the lead, but Davis came up with a huge steal with 28.2 seconds left. Wilson's two free throws with 15.2 seconds remaining sealed it for the Gamecocks.
With ASU smothering Wilson inside in the first half, Staley challenged Davis to be more aggressive. She responded by hitting big shots in the second half and getting to the free throw line.
"I thought we set her up," Staley said. "We put the ball in her hands because we wanted here to drive to the basket. She was aggressive."
Though Wilson scored a game-high 21 points, ASU contained her for much of the game and forced South Carolina's guards to control the offense. Wilson was not worried, and made the big shots when her team needed them most.
"I just figured they were going to find me eventually," she said. "Our guards were doing a tremendous job of getting the ball in the basket, and that's what you need to win, so I really didn't care. … I just knew the ball was going to find who needs it. I was not worried."
South Carolina tightened up its defense in the second half, holding ASU to just 20 percent shooting in the third quarter and 40.7 percent for the game. The Gamecocks forced 15 turnovers.
When it was finally over, Staley and her team were relieved, and grateful to be celebrating at home.
"We're just elated to be moving on and going to the Sweet 16," she said. "I thought we beat a very good Arizona State team. They gave us our best shot. I feel very fortunate to have played on our home court in front of our fans. That willed us into another victory.”
"The end was a great feeling, knowing that we went out with a bang here at the CLA," Wilson said. "It doesn't get much better than that."