Dawn Staley has said multiple times this year that No. 7 South Carolina’s goal for this season is to repeat as national champions.
On Thursday night, the Gamecocks (18-4, 7-2 SEC) got a harsh reminder of the huge hurdles in their way, in the form of bigger, faster No. 1 Connecticut, who flattened USC on its home court, 83-58.
At its biggest, UConn’s lead was 34 points, a gulf that kept the sellout crowd at Colonial Life Arena mostly quiet as the Huskies made shot after shot, especially from long distance. The second quarter turned particularly ugly, as the Huskies outscored the Gamecocks, 29-8.
“With UConn, it is those times in which they can take control of the games,” Staley said. “Where you’re not getting back, you’re turning the ball over, you’re giving them second opportunities to score points, and then you’re coming up with too many empty possessions. Once you have those lapses, it’s hard to overcome. You have to get out significantly in front of them to have a shot at beating them.”
South Carolina’s only lead came at 2-0. Three minutes in, Connecticut was up six.
The Huskies managed to grab that quick lead thanks to senior guard Kia Nurse, who torched South Carolina’s 304th ranked 3-point defense on 4-for-4 shooting beyond the arc in the first half. UConn ended with 11 made 3s on 41 percent shooting, the best a South Carolina opponent has done this season, and Nurse led all scorers with 23 points.
Connecticut’s success from 3-point range was not unexpected — it entered Thursday’s matchup as the fourth-best team in the country from long distance. But the area of the game where Staley predicted that her team would have an edge, inside, went UConn’s way as well, with the Huskies winning the rebound battle until garbage time, getting more second-chance points and scoring 36 points in the paint to USC’s 24.
“I thought (senior forward Gabby Williams) set the tone pretty early that, ‘Yeah, we’re undersized, but we’re going to battle, we’re going to fight and we’re going to push the ball and do what we do,’” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “And that’s what we did.”
For USC, however, there were still a few positives to take away, according to Staley. In the second half, the Gamecocks outscored the Huskies 34-30 and bounced back to limit them to 29 percent shooting from the field.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the performance that we wanted. But in these types of games, you gotta take away what went well,” Staley said. “We all know what we did wrong, but we also did some things well, and if we get the opportunity to play them again, we will utilize those things.
South Carolina star forward A’ja Wilson did everything for the Gamecocks in the first quarter, scoring eight points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots. However, Connecticut’s suffocating defense down low took its toll, and she shot 1-for-11 from the field for the rest of the game, finishing with 14 points and 16 rebounds for her 15th double-double of the season.
“It was something that I’ve seen before. It wasn’t anything different,” Wilson said of Connecticut’s defensive approach. “With me right now, it’s just the mental aspect of it. ... I feel like I didn’t play well today, and I apologized to my teammates for that. But the biggest thing is it’s something I’ve seen before. I just need to figure it out.”
Staley elaborated on Wilson’s struggles, saying her star put too much pressure on herself and let it affect her game.
“I thought A’ja shouldered all of the pressure, and that’s hard,” Staley said. “And, of course, we lean on her a lot, but she doesn’t feel it. I thought she felt it tonight. I thought she felt she had to have a tremendous performance in order for us to win. And she did, but she didn’t have to do it in every play that she was involved in. ... But we gotta give her a little bit of help.”
The other main bright spot for South Carolina was freshman guard Bianca Jackson, who started slow but scored 10 points in the third quarter en route to a career-high 20.
“When we went into halftime, Coach just said, ‘Be aggressive,’ ” Jackson said. “So I was just trying to do what she said.”
South Carolina has a short turnaround before facing SEC-leading No. 2 Mississippi State on Monday. That game will tip off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.
UCONN (21-0)—Samuelson 8-18 1-2 20, Williams 6-8 2-2 14, Collier 6-9 5-5 19, Dangerfield 1-10 0-0 3, Nurse 7-16 4-4 23, Camara 0-0 0-0 0, Irwin 0-0 0-0 0, Stevens 1-5 0-0 2, Bent 0-0 0-0 0, Coombs 1-2 0-0 2, Gordon 0-1 0-0 0, Walker 0-4 0-0 0, Totals 30-73 12-13 83.
SOUTH CAROLINA (18-4)—Jennings 2-7 1-2 5, Wilson 4-18 6-8 14, Cliney 1-8 0-0 3, Harris 2-8 1-2 5, Jackson 8-11 1-2 20, Grissett 3-10 2-2 8, Herbert Harrigan 1-3 1-2 3, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Patrick 0-0 0-0 0, Totals 21-65 12-18 58.
3-Point Goals—UConn 11-27 (Samuelson 3-7, Collier 2-2, Dangerfield 1-5, Nurse 5-10, Stevens 0-1, Coombs 0-1, Walker 0-1), South Carolina 4-10 (Wilson 0-1, Cliney 1-3, Harris 0-1, Jackson 3-5). Assists—UConn 18 (Williams 5), South Carolina 6 (Harris 2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—UConn 42 (Williams 14), South Carolina 44 (Wilson 16). Total Fouls—UConn 18, South Carolina 14. Technical Fouls—None. A—18,000.