Dawn Staley knew that asking her defense to slow down or stop top-ranked Connecticut would be like asking a daisy to stop a Sherman tank. “We just need to do what we do,” she said, meaning if No. 2 South Carolina could just match the Huskies’ points and be in position in the final four minutes, they could win.
The Gamecocks didn’t do what they can do. UConn did what it does.
The No. 1 Huskies rolled to a 66-54 victory Monday in the battle of the only two undefeated teams in the country, intimidating the Gamecocks from the tip and making sure every mistake really hurt.
USC (22-1) built its offense on a simple concept – get the ball inside. With Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck blanketing A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates, the Gamecocks couldn’t get the ball to them – and their jump-shooting wasn’t going to be nearly enough.
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“They pushed us out a lot farther from scoring areas and it was just disruption,” Staley said. “It just takes everybody a step or two outside of where they can be effective.”
It was 30-15 before USC woke up, and from a most unlikely event. Wilson hurt her left leg on a bucket and headed to the locker room, but senior Sarah Imovbioh scored four quick points and the Gamecocks began to use their speed. Still, UConn’s height and reach was too much for USC.
Coates had two points and four fouls. Wilson still wound up with 13 despite missing a full quarter. Imovbioh had her best game with 13 points and a fearless determination around the rim, but she had scarce help.
Tiffany Mitchell, returning from a back injury, seemed tentative to finish inside, instead pulling up for jumpers. The Gamecocks had no perimeter presence, and while Bianca Cuevas wasn’t afraid to drive the ball, her shots had to be elevated and mostly ended up in the hands of a Husky for a quick runout.
“One thing about them is they take away your first option. They just denied it,” Wilson said. “They really kind of took it away from us.”
UConn (23-0) ruthlessly did what it’s done for an incredible 101 of the past 102 games. Two-time National Player of the Year Stewart had 25 points and Morgan Tuck had 16. The Gamecocks were right there in rebounds, shooting percentage – and fouls, despite a “let ’em play” mentality.
But their first-quarter lapse gave UConn all the advantage it needed.
USC’s 45-game home winning streak ended, while the Huskies notched their 60th straight win with no end in sight. Like last year, the two seem destined to meet in the NCAA tournament.
Like last year, the Gamecocks would welcome it.
“I told our team there’s a lot in between now and then. A lot of basketball,” Staley said. “The hard part is to get back there. The easier part is to play UConn again.”
NOTE: Geno Auriemma said that USC has agreed to play at UConn next year, with the Huskies returning to Columbia in two years. Auriemma said he hopes the series continues after that.
The game was tied at 4, but USC missed its next five shots, four from inside. Coates couldn’t finish through contact, Mitchell was pulling up and Tina Roy went inside the arc for a shot, which missed.
The Huskies stretched the lead to 12-4. The Gamecocks had three shot-clock violations in the first quarter.
Star of the game: Imovbioh played the best game of her career, driving to the hole and scoring 13 points with eight rebounds. It was a welcome sight for a post game that was ailing, especially with Wilson out.
The injury doesn’t seem to be serious – Wilson returned, and she’s been battling shin splints all year – but if Imovbioh keeps producing like that, perhaps USC can rest Wilson down the stretch.
Play of the game: Stewart coolly drained a 3 after the Gamecocks had finally shut down UConn’s interior. She’s not the National Player of the Year for nothing.
Stat of the game: Rebecca Lobo, when previewing the game, said that USC couldn’t afford any single-digit quarters. The Gamecocks had two.
FROM THE BASELINE
Runnin’ on: Empty possessions. Staley said that would be the key. UConn was going to score, so USC had to make sure it matched it.
The Gamecocks tried to get something after their first quarter was spent letting the game getting taken to them. But their drives didn’t end in layups, and they weren’t getting to the free-throw line. Call it Superstar Rules or whatever, but the fouls were nearly identical (15 to 16 for UConn). But USC only shot 16 times from the line.
Of course: There was the usual “what do you do now?” after the game. The answer was the same as it was before the game.
Florida on Thursday. Tennessee on Monday. The Gamecocks are still in the driver’s seat for the SEC championship. The loss doesn’t change that.
Who: South Carolina vs. No. 16 Florida
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState
Tuck 6-13 4-7 16, Jefferson 4-9 3-4 12, Nurse 2-9 0-0 6, Stewart 9-18 4-5 25, Samuelson 1-1 0-0 2, Williams 2-6 1-2 5, Collier 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-57 12-18 66.
SOUTH CAROLINA (22-1)
Sessions 1-6 2-3 4, Wilson 5-8 3-4 13, Roy 0-3 0-0 0, Mitchell 4-12 2-2 12, Coates 1-6 0-2 2, Cuevas 1-7 0-0 2, Cliney 1-3 1-2 4, Imovbioh 6-6 1-1 13, White 1-2 2-2 4. Totals 20-53 11-16 54.
3-Point Goals_UConn 6-16 (Stewart 3-4, Nurse 2-4, Jefferson 1-3, Tuck 0-5), South Carolina 3-10 (Mitchell 2-5, Cliney 1-2, Cuevas 0-1, Roy 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_UConn 35 (Stewart, Williams 10), South Carolina 35 (Coates 9). Assists_UConn 14 (Jefferson 6), South Carolina 7 (Roy, Sessions 2). Total Fouls_UConn 16, South Carolina 15. A_18,000.