On Sunday, No. 1 South Carolina beat No. 5 UConn 81-77 at a sold-out XL Center in Hartford, Conn. It was the most hostile environment the Gamecocks have played in all year, which makes sense given this was a highly anticipated national title game rematch in front of a rowdy Husky crowd.
Here are three thoughts from a physical and thrilling game between rivals:
It was a slow start for Aliyah Boston …
…but that only lasted a half.
Boston is the reigning Naismith Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, and is projected to be the first player selected in April’s WNBA draft. UConn frustrated her for the entire first half, double- and sometimes triple-teaming her. At halftime, with the score tied 34-34, Boston had only scored three points on three made free throws. She was 0-5 from the field.
Boston flipped a switch at halftime after making her first field goal early in the third quarter. She finished the game with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
South Carolina is the kind of team that grinds opponents down and can win in different ways. When Boston couldn’t get her shots, the Gamecocks relied on Kamila Cardoso, who made an immediate impact off the bench. The 6-foot-7 junior led with 11 points and six rebounds at halftime, finishing the game with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Cardoso was called for a technical foul in the final 1:20 and exited the court emotionally, but her effort in the first half carried the team and kept the Gamecocks in the game.
South Carolina also dominated the boards 42-30 (25 offensive, 15 of which came in the first half) and its bench scored 37 points (24 in the first half).
UConn shines despite lack of depth
Geno Auriemma hates this storyline, but it’s a big one that’s not going away. UConn has so many injured players (think stars like Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd and more) that it was only able to have a six-player rotation in Sunday’s game against South Carolina. Auriemma subbed in a seventh player, Ines Bettencourt, only after Lou Lopez Senechal fouled out in the final minute.
This is how the Huskies have had to operate all season with only eight available players. Sunday’s matchup was an incredibly impressive and valiant effort, taking the No. 1 team in the country — with the best player in Boston — down to the end.
And even with a severely depleted roster, UConn’s available players came to play. Aaliyah Edwards, who broke her nose at a practice earlier in the season and still wears a protective mask, led all Huskies with 25 points. Lopez Senechal followed with 19, including an impressive shot at the buzzer to end the first quarter over South Carolina’s 6-foot-4 senior Laeticia Amihere to give the Huskies an early 25-14 edge.
Aubrey Griffin added 17 and Nika Muhl had 11.
UConn, which was technically the underdog on Sunday given its bench situation, didn’t play like one and led by as many as 11 points in the first half. Even though they had to be extra careful of getting into foul trouble, which was an issue all game, the Huskies were pesky and aggressive, like when Edwards, who had already picked up her fourth, crashed the basket with 35 seconds left to make it a five-point game.
Final Four rematch?
We’d love to see it.
Last year, South Carolina crushed UConn 64-49 to win the national championship. The Gamecocks are a legit contender to become just the fourth program ever to repeat as champs this season and could very well meet the Huskies there. Auriemma’s team put on a remarkable show, keeping this game close down to the wire with only seven players. It would be silly to think UConn can’t make it to the Final Four even with its depth disadvantage.
UConn has won a record 11 national championships; South Carolina has won two. Last year’s national championship game signaled the start of a changing of the guard at the top. The Huskies are still viewed as the preeminent program in the sport and don’t plan to give up their crown just yet — Auriemma has the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class for 2023, while South Carolina’s is ranked No. 9. But Staley’s Gamecocks have established themselves as the next dominant powerhouse for years to come.
Sunday’s matchup was likely just a preview for another dramatic matchup in a couple of weeks.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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