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College Basketball

Tennessee Never Saw Kamilla Cardoso’s Shot Coming

Ashlyn Watkins and Kamilla Cardoso celebrate the South Carolina buzzer beater
Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Undefeated South Carolina nearly absorbed a shock upset at the hands of Tennessee in the semis of the SEC tournament on Saturday. To avoid defeat, they had to dial up a play that they'd never tried even once before: Kamilla Cardoso from behind the arc.

Cardoso, a six-foot-seven senior, is SC's MVP, leading the team in points and rebounds while also earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in the conference. But there is one thing she absolutely does not do under any circumstances, and that's shoot threes. Heading into the weekend, she'd taken only one in her college career—as a freshman for Syracuse, pre-transfer, in the final minute of a blowout loss to North Carolina—and she'd come up empty.

For most of the game, as with the vast majority of the team's lopsided season, it didn't appear as though the Gamecocks would require any late heroics. They jumped out to a 13-0 lead on the underdogs and built it up to 35-12 in the second quarter. But Tennessee mustered a small charge at the end of the first half, played them even in the third, and made their move in the fourth. A few turnovers and a few missed shots allowed the Vols to sneak into a dead heat, and with 25 seconds left, Tennessee's Rickea Jackson recovered her own wild fling off the backboard to drop in a bucket that broke a 71-71 tie. When Raven Johnson missed a potential go-ahead three for SC with six seconds to go, that looked to be the end, but a pair of missed free throws, coupled with Tennessee's questionable decision to give up a foul instead of allowing a desperate heave, brought the Gamecocks new life—an inbounds play to tie or win.

It was then that head coach Dawn Staley decided to use her very, very secret weapon. Rather than live or die with any one of her three 40-plus percent three-point shooters, Staley took her chance on a winning shot for Cardoso, and the Vols defense did the same. Cardoso was left completely uncovered as she received the pass at the top of the arc. Her release wasn't necessarily pretty, but the physics were sound. Her shot banked off the square on the backboard and fell through the net as the buzzer buzzed.

"I knew with the players we had on the floor, pretty much the only person who was going to be open was Kamilla," Staley said after the game. "So I just told Raven (Johnson) to get the ball to Kamilla. And I told Kamilla, 'Hey, pass it to (Te-Hina) Paopao,' and then at the last second I was like, 'Kamilla, shoot it.'"

The benefits from this clutch make are twofold. South Carolina, in the short-term, gets an unforgettable win that allows them a rematch with their toughest opponent of the regular season, LSU, for the SEC title. And for that game, as well as the tourney contests that lie ahead, they'll have also added yet another threat for teams to worry about as they try to hand SC their first loss since last year's Final Four. Whether or not Cardoso ever makes another three in her college career, nobody's going to want to leave her open from that spot again.

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