South Carolina advances with 79-63 win over Buffalo

A'ja Wilson during the Sweet Sixteen matchup against Buffalo (Source: Associated Press)

Alexis Jennings scored 20 points, A'ja Wilson added 20 points and 13 rebounds, and South Carolina beat Buffalo 79-63 on Saturday to keep alive its quest to defend its title. Second-seeded South Carolina (29-6), whose only losses this year have come against ranked teams, will face the winner of the other Sweet 16 matchup in the Albany Region between top-seeded and unbeaten UConn and Duke, who played later Saturday. Upstart Buffalo (29-6), just the third Mid-American Conference school to reach the Sweet 16, was among the final four teams to earn an at-large berth. It was the program's second tournament appearance after a first-round exit two years ago. The Gamecocks, who have won six straight, defeated North Carolina A&T and Virginia by double digits in the first two rounds, holding both to under 60 points as they stayed on track to make a third Final Four in four seasons. But those performances had flaws -- 19 turnovers in one -- that coach Dawn Staley focused on correcting. They didn't on Saturday -- South Carolina had 26 turnovers -- but in the end it didn't matter. Cierra Dillard led Buffalo with 29 points, the only player in double figures. The Gamecocks led 55-48 entering the fourth quarter, and the Bulls stayed with them, closing to 60-54 on Dillard's driving layup off the glass with 6:38 left. But Buffalo missed three straight shots and a fast-break layup by Doniyah Cliney gave South Carolina a 10-point lead with just over 5 minutes to go. Buffalo is a senior-dominated team and has players from around the globe -- four from Australia, a couple of Canadians, one from Nigeria -- as well as Buffalo-area locals. That melting pot of sorts had created a close-knit group and they helped contribute to the madness of March that has seen 11th seeds wreak havoc on brackets. The 11th-seeded Bulls had already vanquished sixth-seeded South Florida (102-79) and third-seeded Florida State (86-65) -- on the Seminoles home court, no less. Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack, who nearly quit coaching after being fired by Indiana, had said her Bulls were "too silly and quirky to be afraid" and their late-season rush proved it. The Bulls had lost only once in 13 games, the lone setback coming against Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament two weeks ago. That was one of two setbacks to CMU, which won the MAC title and also reached the Sweet 16. The Bulls quickly proved they belonged on the big stage, forging a 7-0 run early against the Gamecocks. Dillard's 3 from the left wing gave Buffalo a 10-6 lead midway through the first quarter. South Carolina missed three layups and committed eight turnovers in the period but only trailed 17-16 at the end of the period despite taking six fewer shots than the Bulls. As they often did during the season, the Bulls attacked repeatedly from beyond the arc and stayed close until the waning minutes before halftime. A three-point play by freshman LeLe Grissett began a 12-2 run by the Gamecocks as they continued to attack relentlessly inside. A 3 from left wing by Tyasha Harris and a layup by Jennings gave South Carolina a 40-28 lead. After a layup by Dillard gave Buffalo a one-point lead with 5:50 left in the first half, the Bulls missed five times and committed a turnover before Stephanie Reid hit her only basket of the opening two periods -- a 3 with 6.4 seconds left.

AND THEN THERE WAS ONE Staley and Legette-Jack were the last two African American coaches in the tournament, which started with 10.

BIG PICTURE Buffalo: Legette-Jack made her sixth season at the helm of the Bulls one to remember. The program made its first trip to the Sweet 16. Only one 11 seed has ever advanced to a regional final, Gonzaga in 2011 with a seven-point win over Louisville. The Bulls lose three senior starters who were instrumental in setting a school record for victories. They also went 12-0 at home and, and posted 21 victories decided by at least 10 points, a high bar to match. South Carolina: The Gamecocks move on to the Elite Eight but their penchant for mistakes will have to be fixed to have a chance to reach the Final Four.

KEY STAT South Carolina outrebounded Buffalo 48-21.

UP NEXT South Carolina will play either UConn or Duke in the regional final on Monday night.Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.