There’s no way around it – No. 1 Connecticut dominated No. 7 South Carolina on Thursday night.
With a raucous sellout crowd of 18,000 in Colonial Life Arena at their backs, and riding high off last Sunday’s win against Missouri, the Gamecocks let the undefeated Huskies tear them apart, 83-58. In less than 19 minutes of play, UConn was up 30 points, and the game was over before halftime.
In the first half, Connecticut shot 51.3 percent from the field, 53.8 percent from 3 and was 6-for-6 on free throws. Geno Auriemma’s squad assisted on 13 of 20 field goals and turned the ball over just four times while grabbing nine rebounds.
South Carolina, by comparison, shot 33.3 percent from the field, 20 percent from 3 and 50 percent at the free throw line. The Gamecocks had just three assists, but eight turnovers. They averaged 0.649 points per possession, an even worse mark than the season average of NCAA-worst Chicago State, which lost a record 58th straight game Thursday night.
Granted, some of those struggles stemmedfrom the fact that USC was playing a team with five or six All-American caliber players that was playing some of its best, most clinical basketball of the year, according to Auriemma, who even seemed a little bemused himself by how effortlessly his team seemed to dominate.
“I wasn’t sure we had this in us. ... That was fun to watch. I enjoyed watching it,” Auriemma said afterward.
But it was still somewhat surprising to see a Dawn Staley-led team stumble so spectacularly out of the gate on national TV, and it reinforced a truth Staley has maintained since the season began – this isn’t last year’s team. And that’s at least part of the reason Staley, while certainly not overjoyed, seemed relatively upbeat after the loss.
For a young team like South Carolina, Staley said, facing a squad as good as UConn can force players to adjust their preparation and pick up on smaller details of the game. That’s a characteristic she wants to see more of moving forward, she said.
“In order to beat teams like UConn, you need to do some homework yourself. ... Those are the little things, the game within the game, that some of our younger players have to figure out,” Staley said. “Everything can’t be in the scouting report.”
And after the initial burst from Connecticut in the first half, USC did manage to outscore the Huskies over the game’s final two quarters, 34-30. In particular, Staley praised the team’s defensive energy as much improved: UConn shot just 29.4 percent from the field in the second half.
“I thought our defense in the third and fourth quarters gave them some pause, and it gave us the opportunity to get out and score a little bit and not rely so much on our halfcourt offense. ... From a defensive standpoint, we were moving pretty good in our zone,” she said.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen UConn shoot 28 percent in the third quarter and 31 percent in the fourth quarter, 40 percent for the game. They don’t do that a whole lot, so we gotta hang our hats on something.”
With a national title rematch against No. 2 Mississippi State fast approaching Monday, Staley’s decision not to dwell on the negatives from one of her biggest home defeats while at South Carolina speaks to UConn’s brilliance, but also to her approach with this team and how she views its development.
And while the Gamecocks will need starters such as sophomore guard Tyasha Harris and redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings to improve their numbers substantially from Thursday, the fact that USC was able to come back and at least compete in the second half of a game in which the nation’s top-ranked team was playing phenomenally seems to be enough to keep Staley optimistic about their chances in the near future.