DALLAS — Karlie Samuelson was hurting. The senior sharpshooter suffered a right ankle sprain while slipping on the court in a second-quarter moment that might have doomed Stanford on Friday night in the Women’s Final Four.
Samuelson played only 10 minutes in the second half and didn’t score at the American Airlines Arena.
As much as her teammates tried, the sixth-ranked Cardinal couldn’t respond without the country’s most accurate 3-point shooter.
Not against third-ranked South Carolina and All-American A’ja Wilson, who had 13 points and a whopping 18 rebounds as the No. 3 Gamecocks scored a 62-53 victory in the semifinals. South Carolina (32-4) will play for the national championship Sunday against Mississippi State, which shocked Connecticut with an overtime buzzer-beater to halt the Huskies’ record 111-game win streak.
Stanford’s season ended with Samuelson’s ankle wrapped in ice, giving teammates long embraces in the locker room.
“She really was the glue to our team,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She talks. She makes big shots. She takes charges. She couldn’t move.”
Stanford (32-6) bid adieu to Samuelson and senior teammates Erica McCall and Briana Roberson in what VanDerveer called one of her favorite teams. It left the Hall of Fame coach wistful and soaking in the final moments she had with this group.
Samuelson didn’t know what happened with 4:38 left in the half as she was sprawled on the floor. It didn’t appear she slipped because of contact. McCall and a Stanford staffer carried her to the sideline as if she were precious cargo.
“It hurt really bad,” Samuelson said, trying to hold back tears. “I’m pretty dramatic person when I get hurt.”
As much as she tried it was difficult to portray a positive image in a somber locker room.
“I don’t know if I jinxed myself,” the 6-foot Samuelson said. “I never sprain my ankle.”
It couldn’t have come at a worse moment. VanDerveer said the Cardinal had to be at its best to defeat South Carolina, a four-time Southeastern Conference champion.
The Gamecocks trailed by nine at halftime but outscored Stanford 42-24 in a dominating second half when Samuelson didn’t take a shot while limited to 10 minutes.
A guard who averaged in double figures this year missed on both her first-half shots because of how closely the Gamecocks stuck with her. But VanDerveer figured her senior would eventually find an opening. Samuelson had come through all season.
But not with a throbbing ankle.
“We don’t have that big a margin for error,” VanDerveer said of a team without an All-American.
South Carolina went on a 12-0 run to take a 39-33 lead with 1:42 left in the third quarter as the Cardinal went 3 ½ minutes without scoring. Allisha Gray played a big role in the second-half rally, finishing with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Although Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks had control, Stanford didn’t fold — just like it had not all season. A team that has shown an uncanny ability to rally in desperate situations almost did it again Friday.
South Carolina led by eight points with 4:13 left when sophomore Alanna Smith exploded. She made a layin and a 3-point shot to cut the margin to three with 2:11 left. But missed shots, fouls and turnovers allowed the Gamecocks to breathe easy by the end.
“We were playing for our seniors,” said Smith, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
The pain was palatable in the Stanford locker room after the defeat settled in. To a teammate, they felt good about getting this far when so many doubted they could.
But losing Samuelson?
“Oh, it hurt man,” said McCall, who had 14 points and 14 rebounds. “It hurt really bad.”
It pained Roberson for the finality of it all. She and Samuelson aren’t just roommates who played four years at Stanford. Their careers began in gyms in Orange County when training together as girls.
“To see her grow the way she has grown” has been an inspiration, Roberson said. “She’s more than a shooter. She has been a coach to me.”
Samuelson ends her career with 249 3-point shots — third in school history.
But the final moment on a big stage left her in tears.