March 10, 2024 

Inside Kamilla Cardoso’s buzzer-beater that saved South Carolina’s undefeated season

With just over one second left, Cardoso achieved the unthinkable

With 3.7 seconds left in South Carolina’s SEC Tournament Semifinal matchup against Tennessee, Gamecock point guard Raven Johnson was about to cry. Her undefeated team was down two points, and without possession, she had flashbacks to how it ended for the Cocks a year prior. But she always kept her faith.

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“I looked at Coach. She’s like, ‘We’re good.’ Okay, if she say we’re good, we’re good. If she thinks we’re good, then we should think we’re good,” Johnson explained postgame. “I was just thinking about winning. Just gave me a flashback of last year. I didn’t want to go through that again.”

Thankfully for Johnson, she wouldn’t have to. With just 1.1 seconds remaining, Johnson inbounded the ball to her teammate and close friend, center Kamilla Cardoso. Cardoso heaved up the second three-point attempt of her career and, much to everyone’s surprise, banked the shot.

The Game

Tennessee started the first seven minutes of the game completely scoreless, going down 13-0. South Carolina continued to dominate throughout the first half, separating themselves by 23 points at the most dramatic point. After the half, Tennessee came back from the locker room with a renewed vision and adjustments. Star forward Rickea Jackson took off with 19 second-half points, and the Vols clamped down their defense. With thirty seconds remaining, the game was tied 71-71.

South Carolina couldn’t stop Tennessee’s momentum — and Jackson’s rebound — and a put-back at 10 seconds put the Vols up by two points. Johnson missed a three, and Tennessee began to celebrate with possession and 3.7 seconds remaining.

“Quite honestly, I made a bad move because I thought we had the ball in front of our bench. I drew up a play in front of our bench. We ended up having to take it out underneath the basket,” South Carolina Head Coach Dawn Staley explained. “We were all discombobulated. At that point I just wanted our team to get a shot at the basket.”

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The Cocks were forced to foul Tennesse player Jasmine Powell, who missed her pair of free throws, and the Gamecocks retained possession. Tennessee fouled before freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley shot, giving South Carolina one more possession in the backcourt. Johnson inbounded the ball cross-court to Cardoso; the play was originally set up to go to leading-sharp shooter Te-Hina Paopoa until Staley explicitly yelled at her 6′ 7″ center to shoot it from the top of the arc.

“It was God’s plan, honestly,” Johnson recounted.

After Cardoso made the first three of her career, an immediate dogpile was initiated, and the Gamecocks saved their perfect season. Cardoso’s family, who are originally from Brazil, were also there to see it. For many members of her family, it was their first time in the USA.

The Mistake

Although no one expected Cardoso to make her shot, Vols center Tamari Key, who was guarding Cardoso throughout the night, remained in the key. Sagging off on Cardoso was the Vols’ crucial mistake in the final second, and may have caused them the game.

“I wanted Tamari to be in the paint so they couldn’t get a pass to the paint. We were trying to get Rickea back there in the play. Obviously at the end of a game like that, everyone is a shooter because you could luck one in in that moment,” Vols Head Coach Kellie Harper reflected.

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In addition, the final foul leading to the inbounds play could’ve been better executed. Harper also added she should’ve taken a timeout with 1.1 seconds left.

But games like that are not about a mistake or two at the final moment. They’re about moments akin to a coin toss — if Cardoso hadn’t made the shot, the Gamecocks would’ve been sullen knowing they blew a 23-point lead. Both teams needed better consistency throughout the game — the Vols needed to start less panicked, and the Gamecocks needed to finish like they started.

The Belief

Harper, teary-eyed through the post-game press conference, emphasized how tough her team has become over the season and how much she wanted that moment for them.

“We’ve been playing good basketball. We’ve been tough. I think the positive is just the fight that we have. We know what we’ve got inside us,” Harper said.

Tennessee’s near-win resembles their 17-point SEC Tournament Semifinals comeback over LSU last year. Tennessee is a team built for March, and they know they can compete with the best.

And for South Carolina, it’s clear that the players have undying faith in Staley. For Staley, she has the faith of the community she built. Her head cheerleader? Cleo Boston, the mother of former star Aliyah Boston.

“Every game, Mrs. Boston sends out scripture, send us out messages. I’m looking at my phone. She just texted about 6:44. She said, ‘I told you’,” Staley said. “It’s really hard to believe when she says things like that. But the more and more she says it, the more and more great things are happening to our program.”

For legacy programs like Tennessee and South Carolina, belief has gotten them everywhere, and today’s final 10 seconds illustrate the belief they both have which will serve them well going into the NCAA Tournament.

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Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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