No. 1 South Carolina rallies to stay unbeaten, fend off plucky No. 5 UConn in championship rematch

HARTFORD, Conn. — Dawn Staley cautioned if her No. 1-ranked were actually the favorite heading into a heavily anticipated title game rematch with No. 5 Connecticut on Sunday. Sure, they had defeated the Huskies in a dominating title game on a neutral court in April. They’d taken them down at home in Columbia. They even held the current series streak, winning three of the past four.

Her point was South Carolina hadn’t won in Connecticut in the mecca of college basketball, a hostile environment that decades of success built.

Now, they have. The Gamecocks slowly pulled away late in the fourth quarter to defeat UConn, , in a sold-out and roaring “white out” XL Center crowd on Sunday despite their reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston not making a field goal until the second half.

“Aliyah is, she’s just relentless. She plays relentlessly,” Staley said. “And although she had a subpar [performance] as far as statistics when she didn’t get a field goal [in the first half], she impacted the game. They’re scheming to defend her in a certain way whether they bring the double, whether they bring the triple, whether they single cover her. She’s got to see it all. She does a great job at reading it and she doesn’t get flustered.”

It was Boston, a leading contender for a second Player of the Year award despite a shallower season stat line, who took over for the Gamecocks (23-0, 11-0 SEC) late. She finished with 26 points after scoring three, all free throws, in the first half. Her defensive rebound to notch 11 overall rebounds secured the win as seconds ticked off for the Huskies (21-3, 13-0 Big East).

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Geno Auriemma slams water bottle

A midrange jumper by Boston pushed the lead back to six that stood at 4:04 when UConn took a timeout. Head coach Geno Auriemma was called for a technical out of the break for slamming a water bottle onto the court and Boston hit her free throws to push it to double digits.

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Auriemma, who was pulled back and off the court by assistant coaches, called the technical “stupid” and took issue with the way the game was officiated. It occurred after a Gamecock player appeared to arm-hold Lou Lopez-Senechal off a screen.

“I didn’t say anything for a long, long, long time,” Auriemma said. “And I just felt like — you want me to bring Lou in and see the bruises? It’s just appalling what teams do to her now. It’s not basketball anymore. It’s not basketball anymore. So that was the problem.”

He said later it wasn’t “one key play” that set it off, but he felt “there were a lot of things going on that were being overlooked.” It was a foul-filled affair throughout, but none more so than the fourth quarter with a few techs. South Carolina was 26-of-36 from the stripe and UConn was 19-of-25. It was the most fouls called against South Carolina all season.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma is held back by assistant coach Jamelle Elliott in the second half of the Huskies' game against South Carolina on Feb. 5, 2023, in Hartford, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

How South Carolina won

A 3-pointer by the 6-foot-5 Boston made it 72-61, a metaphorical dagger after the Huskies had tempted the struggling Gamecocks to shoot them earlier in the half. UConn kept punching back, but South Carolina did enough to keep it two possessions away until Aubrey Griffin’s and-1 made it 80-77 with 10.8 on the clock. UConn left Raven Johnson wide open on the inbound and she made one of her free throws for the final score.

Johnson, a 5-8 redshirt freshman, was clutch for South Carolina with 14 points off the bench and a game-high seven assists and career-high 35 minutes. Staley said she had to have Johnson on the floor for the way she impacted both sides of the ball.

“I thought she did a phenomenal job on [Nika] Mühl and disrupted [so that] she wasn’t the primary point guard,” Staley said. “We wanted somebody else to initiate their offense, just add some sort of disruption. And then when we got in the half-court, she didn’t let her touch the ball without her actually feeling her.”

Mühl, who averages a Division I-best 8.8 assists per game, dished out only four. She scored 11 points going an efficient 4-of-6.

“When Mühl doesn’t have it, that’s the country’s leader in assists,” Staley said. “You can’t really made people better if she doesn’t really have the ball. We were hoping when the fourth quarter came around that she was too tired to do other stuff. She wasn’t, but that was our whole objective.”

No bench player was more pivotal for South Carolina than Kamilla Cardoso, who came off the bench to galvanize the Gamecocks early. Her 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting led the Gamecocks, who hadn’t received a field goal from either Boston or guard Zia Cooke. And her second-chance putback made it a 34-34 game heading into halftime.

“Kamilla was the switch,” Boston said. “I think she was just dominant. She got the ball, she rebounded, she scored, and she made it hard for them. I think that’s what we’ve been working on in practice, just her continuing to be dominant, and I think today she did a great job of executing that.”

Cardoso finished with a 17-point, 11-rebound double-double in 21 minutes of action. She fouled out on a late technical Staley said came quick.

South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso shoots against UConn forward Ayanna Patterson in the second half of their game on Feb. 5, 2023. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

Aaliyah Edwards, Lou Lopez-Senechal keep UConn in it

The “narrative” around the game, particularly in Staley’s eyes, was the Gamecocks would win because of depth given UConn’s injury issues. South Carolina nearly splits its offensive output 50-50 with starters and bench players, a testament to health but also the talent Staley has recruited to the new powerhouse. The bench goose-egged UConn, 37-0.

The Huskies looked gassed last week after playing five games in 12 days and pulling, at most, two off the bench. On Sunday, they took the first punch as they wanted and kept it closer than the title game loss without much sign of fatigue until fouls caught up.

Aaliyah Edwards, an improved forward from the last meeting, committed her fourth foul late in the third to take a seat and Muhl fouled out in the final minute as did Lopez-Senechal.

It was Edwards and Griffin who needed big games for UConn to have a chance, Auriemma said earlier in the week, and afterward confirmed they “played about as well as I wanted them to play, for sure.” Edwards scored a team-best 25 points, but only four rebounds, and Griffin added 17 points and four rebounds. Lopez-Senechal once again proved pivotal with 19 points.

Auriemma said he would have liked to see more 3-pointers from his team to keep up with South Carolina’s second-chance opportunities. The Gamecocks won that, 25-10. UConn was 2-of-6 from range, making both of their 3s in the first quarter to fuel a 25-14 lead.

The defense forced South Carolina to survive without offensive input from Boston. She was 0-for-5, including two missed 3-pointers as UConn kept her on the perimeter in the first half. Cooke didn’t fare any better, shooting 0-of-8 and missing all three 3-pointers she attempted. The Gamecocks collectively missed all seven they tried, accounting for one-fifth of their attempts. They were 3-of-15 overall.

Cooke broke her skid on a drive out of the break and Boston answered at 8:28 with her first bucket. South Carolina was still never able to break it open like it had in the title game and UConn’s defense continued to take the chance leaving Gamecocks open on the perimeter. At one point early in the fourth with a 53-50 South Carolina lead, the Gamecocks passed it among themselves behind the arc before finally attempting, and missing.

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