Credit Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press
ALBANY — 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 successfully defend its title.
Second-seeded South Carolina (29-6), whose only losses this season have come against ranked teams, will face the winner of the other round-of-16 matchup in the Albany Regional, top-seeded and unbeaten UConn versus Duke, which played later Saturday.
Buffalo (29-6), just the third Mid-American Conference school to reach the round of 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, its 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 five 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 from the Buffalo area. That melting pot had created a close-knit group and helped contribute to the madness of March. The 11th-seeded Bulls had 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 Central Michigan, which won the MAC title and also reached the round of 16.