South Carolina’s 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso is the center of attention for the title-hunting Gamecocks

When Cardoso is unstoppable, so is America’s best squad

CLEVELAND (AP) — Her frizzy hair dyed a maroon closely matching South Carolina’s garnet, Kamilla Cardoso was impossible to miss as she stood near mid-court inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Friday night.

At 6-foot-7, it’s not like she blends in.

The center of attention. In some circles, the mean girl.

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso gestures to fans during practice for the NCAA Women’s Final Four championship basketball game Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

With the biggest game of the season minutes away, Cardoso showed no nerves on the Final Four stage. She owned it by dancing, showing off soccer dribbling skills developed in her native Brazil and then trying several times to shoot the ball off the giant scoreboard hanging 100 feet above her head.

Cardoso being Cardoso.

“She’s just silly,” said teammate Ashlyn Watkins, “and she’s always doing crazy stuff like that for no reason.”

Maybe misunderstood by opponents and outsiders, Cardoso, who left her family behind in 2016 at just 15 to pursue her dream of playing high-level basketball in the U.S., is the main reason the undefeated Gamecocks (37-0) are favored to win their second national title in three years on Sunday when they face Iowa and superstar Caitlin Clark.

The Hawkeyes (34-4) don’t have anyone who can physically match up with Cardoso.

Nobody does.

In Friday’s first semifinal, Cardoso almost single-handedly wrecked North Carolina State by scoring 22 points in 23 minutes, shaking off a right leg injury as the Gamecocks advanced with a 78-59 win to set up a rematch against Iowa.

She scored South Carolina’s first 12 points in the second quarter and had six more in the Gamecocks’ 29-6 onslaught in the third.

It was the kind of performance the Gamecocks have always wanted and not always gotten from Cardoso, who is skipping her final college year for the WNBA.

When Cardoso is unstoppable, so is America’s best squad.

“It makes us a way better team,” Gamecocks guard Raven Johnson said. “When we can play through her, it makes the guards better. Just look at her, she’s 6-7. There’s really no one out there like her. She’s really a key to this team and when she brings her ‘A’ game every day, I don’t see anyone who is going to stop her.”

Cardoso wasn’t available for interviews Saturday. A team spokesman said she was receiving medical treatment during the media breakout sessions.

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But Cardoso, who had 14 points and 14 rebounds in last year’s Final Four loss to Iowa, didn’t seem to be bothered by her leg during an open practice that drew thousands of fans. She moved easily and usually with a smile as the Gamecocks went through drills.

There have been highs and lows all season for Cardoso.

With the Gamecocks in danger of losing to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, she banked in the first 3-pointer of her career — only her second attempt after a miss for Syracuse in 2020 — at the buzzer to beat the Lady Vols.

The next day, Cardoso got attention for the wrong reasons.

With tensions smoldering during a heated matchup against LSU, Tigers star Angel Reese was caught on TV pulling Cardoso’s hair, leading to some jawing between the stars. Moments later, LSU’s Flau’jae Johnson shoved Watkins and Cardoso flew to her teammate’s side, pushing Johnson to the floor.

Both benches emptied, women’s basketball took a blemish and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley apologized. Cardoso did the same but she was suspended for the NCAA Tournament first-round game against Presbyterian.

The incident didn’t help Cardoso’s image, which her teammates believe is unfair.

“She’s just something different,” guard Bree Hall said. “I think it’s unfortunate that the media has made it that she’s this mean person. She is not. She is a beautiful Brazilian warrior. She’s so sweet, always smiling, always happy for all of us.

“She’s super funny and just a joyful and cheerful person.”

It’s taken time for Cardoso to fit in with the Gamecocks.

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso laughs during practice for the NCAA Women’s Final Four championship basketball game Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

She knew just three words in English — “hi,” “yes” and “bye” — when she left Brazil eight years ago. Although she got more comfortable in later years, there were awkward moments when she got to campus in 2021 as she tried to learn about her teammates and vice versa.

“I remember her not knowing English,” Johnson said. “She was looking at us like we were weird. I was like ‘Why is she looking at us like that?’ As years developed she started learning English and she got better.”

And as the language gap was bridged, Cardoso’s personality changed — from surly to sweet.

“She was so mean when she first got here,” Johnson said. “She was so mean to us. She developed over time.”

So has her game. Cardoso hasn’t always embraced the idea of being the Gamecocks’ leading lady, even though she leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Her scoring average during the tournament is 17.0 points per game, higher than her season average of 14.3

“Her presence inside has done so much for us,” guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “Seeing her growth over the season has been so much fun to watch and experience with her. Coming into the summer, she wasn’t really looking to dominate like she is now.

“It’s a great sight to see. I’m really excited for her journey. We’ve got one more. I know she’s going to dominate (Sunday).”

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