TAMPA, Fla. — Aleighsa Welch gave it all she had. But in the end, the senior’s best efforts weren’t enough in South Carolina’s heartbreaking 66-65 semifinal loss to Notre Dame in NCAA Women’s Final Four Sunday night.
Teammates consoled an emotional Welch as they led her off the court after the program’s first Final Four appearance — and the last game of her college career.
She wasn’t ready to leave and it showed throughout the second half. A native of Goose Creek, South Carolina, she sparked a Gamecocks’ rally that had the program in position to advance to Tuesday’s championship game.
|DI WOMEN’S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP|
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|Maloof: UConn’s standards are unique to rest of field|
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“Anytime you end your season, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Welch said. “I credit us, I credit my teammates for still fighting and never dropping their heads. And I think a lot of people thought we were down and out in the second half. But it’s always tough to swallow when you put so much effort and energy and you don’t come out with a win.”
Trailing 64-52 with 7:51 remaining, three consecutive Welch baskets in a little over a minute cut Notre Dame’s lead in half. South Carolina continued to whittle away at the deficit, and with 1:21 left on the clock, Welch grabbed an offensive rebound and made a put back that gave the Gamecocks its first lead of the game at 65-64.
Notre Dame quickly regained the advantage on a Madison Cable jumper in the final seconds — and South Carolina’s last possession came up short as the Irish survived a close call.
“I feel that our team did what they had to do, put themselves in the position to win the game,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “Unfortunately for us, it came down to them making a play when they needed to make a play and we didn’t.”
But Welch’s never-say-die performance was one the Gamecocks’ program will remember for years to come. Welch finished the game with 10 points — all coming in the second half — and led all players with 14 rebounds, including nine offensive boards, in just 28 minutes of play. She scored eight of the Gamecocks’ final 15 points.
“The hardest part is swallowing the fact that my career is over,” Welch said. “That’s the part that hurts the most. I really just want to go to everybody and say, ‘I’m sorry. I wanted to win a national championship, I really did. I just wanted to cap off the season that way. So to come up short, it is hard.”
— Aleighsa Welch
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley commended Welch and her fellow seniors — guard Olivia Gaines and center Elem Ibiam — for their tremendous contributions in the past four years and admitted it will be tough to see them go.
“They will leave a big void in our program,” Staley said. “They won a lot. But what’s great about the senior class that’s leaving us is they’re leaving us with a legacy of leadership. They didn’t come in as the best leaders in the world, but they leave as probably one of the best leaders, one of the best class of leaders that we’ve had come through our program. So I think our players have taken note to how they led our basketball team. And if they’re half the leaders that Elem and Olivia and Aleighsa were to our basketball team, our program is in a great place.”
Welch hopes the strides her class made with the program will have a lasting impact.
“I hope Coach Staley is able to keep the best kids from South Carolina at home, because I think it’s a testament to what can happen when some of the best kids from South Carolina come together and form a team,” Welch said.
With a plethora of talent set to return next year and their first Final Four experience under their belts, the Gamecocks seem poised to become a fixture in April.
“We had a lot of firsts for our program,” Staley said. “They had a very memorable year. And I want us to enjoy the year, but I also want us to have a certain hunger, a certain bad taste in our mouth from experiencing and being so close to competing for a national championship that it will fuel us to be better individually, to be better collectively so we can get back to this point.”
So, get used to seeing South Carolina at the Final Four. They’ll be back.