South Carolina (23-0), which kept its record unblemished ahead of next Sunday’s showdown with another unbeaten team from the Southeastern Conference, Louisiana State, looks as formidable as it did when it won its second title last season.
After losing eight consecutive games to Connecticut, South Carolina has now won three in a row and four of five against the Huskies (21-3). But Sunday’s win was the first at the XL Center in Hartford, the Huskies’ home away from home, where 11 national championship banners hang above the court.
“In the whole grand scheme of things, it’s not really important,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. “But for your psyche, when we’ve beaten UConn in the regular season, great things happen in the postseason. You’ve got to feel some success, or you play ’em again and you’ve lost that game, it does give you a little bit of doubt that you can’t beat them.”
Their Philadelphia roots aside, Staley and Auriemma come at the game differently. (While Staley prowled the sideline in an Eagles hoodie, Auriemma will be rooting for Kansas City in the Super Bowl because of his friendship with the team’s defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, a former UConn football assistant.)
The Gamecocks make use of a deep bench and an athletic roster, preferring to run their offense through Boston. As it turned out, two of their most productive players came off the bench — guard Raven Johnson, who had 14 points and 7 assists, and center Kamilla Cardoso, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds.
The Huskies play a more free-flowing, international game, as might be expected from a starting lineup that featured players from five countries — Hungary, Croatia, France, Canada and the United States. Regrettably, the Huskies’ best players remained on their bench in gray sweatsuits: Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme.
Bueckers, a junior guard who was the national player of the year as a freshman and who carried Connecticut to the title game last spring, is likely out for the season after tearing knee ligaments in August. But Fudd, who has missed all but six quarters of the last two months with a knee injury, and Ducharme, a much-needed perimeter threat who has been out since Dec. 31 with a concussion, are expected to return this month.