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‘Unassuming’ star Brea Beal guides South Carolina to national title game

Brea Beal was tasked with guarding Louisville star guard Hailey Van Lith. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

It’s the little things that make Brea Beal special.

It’s also the big things.

It’s the small action of taking two steps down the block to aid Aliyah Boston in a triple team. And the big commotion caused by blocking not one, but two Hailey Van Lith jump shots in the first quarter.

It’s the blink-and-you-might-miss-it impact Beal has had all season for South Carolina.

Against Louisville on Friday night, Beal made her mark in every way imaginable, finishing with 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals to help the Gamecocks to a 72-59 win and a place in the national championship game Sunday.

“She’s so underestimated,” coach Dawn Staley said. “She’s so unassuming. Her personality makes it easy for people to overlook her. Except the people who know what she does every single day.”

A lot more people know now.

Going into the Final Four game, Van Lith, Louisville’s star guard, was averaging 21.5 points in the tournament. Beal, who often draws South Carolina’s most difficult defensive assignment, was tasked with guarding her.

Down 5-0 to start the game, Van Lith started to work on Beal, setting her up for a stepback jumper. The South Carolina junior blocked the shot, and then fielded a pass on the other end from Aliyah Boston for a layup.

Beal was able to limit Van Lith to nine points on 4-for-11 shooting with her relentless defense.

“It’s just the mentality to have every single game,” she said. “You can’t just turn it on and turn it off when you choose to.”

Beal blocked another Van Lith jumper before the quarter ended, but the Louisville sophomore still found ways to make an impact. With 1:50 left in the first, Van Lith drove and dished to Olivia Chochran, who finished a layup and was fouled. She missed the free throw, but Van Lith came up with the rebound and Emily Engstler scored on a layup to cut the South Carolina lead down to 15-10.

It was that kind of game. South Carolina would create distance, and Louisville would string together high-energy plays to ensure the Gamecocks were never too far out of reach.

“Louisville did an extremely great job just competing,” Staley said. “We could never put them away because of their fight and their competitiveness, and their ability to hang in there and score and turn us over.”

With 25 seconds left in the first half, Louisville’s fight was apparent. The Cardinals had been down nine, then ahead three, then tied. Going into the final possession, they trailed South Carolina 32-28.

Boston caught the ball in the paint and was swarmed by three Louisville defenders. She faked the shot, and then the ever unassuming Beal stepped to the hoop. Boston dumped the ball to her, and Beal finished to give the Gamecocks a six-point lead going into the half.

While Beal was a quiet impact player, Boston’s performance was much, much louder. The National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year finished with 23 points, 18 rebounds and four assists.

“She’s really good,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of Boston. “I mean, it doesn’t take me to tell you what she’s good at. I’ve got a 6-year-old at home that can sit here and watch the game and be like, ‘Damn, she’s good.’”

Engstler was the catalyst for Louisville, keeping the Cardinals within striking distance. When she fouled out with 4:56 left in the game, and her team trailed by nine points, the deficit only grew.

A few minutes later, with the victory sealed, Boston and Beal subbed out and were met with cheers from the South Carolina crowd. No doubt they were cheering for Boston’s monster performance. But they were also cheering for Beal because, as Staley says, those who watch her every day know what she does for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina is one game away from a national title, in no small part because of Brea Beal.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.