UConn made a great run to get to Sunday’s national championship game. When it arrived, it ran into a buzzsaw. South Carolina overwhelmed UConn on defense and the glass en route to a 64-49 win to earn the NCAA women’s national championship. The victory spoiled the Minneapolis homecoming of UConn star Paige Bueckers while handing head coach Geno Auriemma his first championship game loss after winning each of the previous 11 he coached with the Huskies.
Head coach Dawn Staley, meanwhile, collects hers and South Carolina’s second championship in two trips to the title game since 2017. Senior guard Destanni Henderson saved her best game for last while pacing the Gamecocks with a career-high 26 points to lead the South Carolina offense.
Dominant early run sets tone for South Carolina
South Carolina set the tone early, opening the game on a 13-2 run. When the first quarter ended, the Gamecocks led 22-8 while holding a 12-3 rebounding advantage. UConn’s three leading scorers — Christyn Williams, Bueckers and Azzi Fudd — were held scoreless in the stanza.
South Carolina extended its lead to 30-12 early in the second quarter, ensuring that UConn would have to make a historic rally to win its 12th championship. The largest deficit overcome in a national title game was 15 points by Notre Dame in 2018. UConn fought back with a 9-0 run in the second quarter and a 10-0 run in the third to stop the game from becoming a complete runaway. But the historic rally never materialized.
South Carolina didn’t let UConn within six points of the lead as it routinely found answers to extend its advantage back to double digits whenever the Huskies threatened. Bueckers rallied from her slow start to score nine points by halftime and finish the game with 14. But Williams and Fudd, who combined to average 27.1 points per game en route to the title game, both remained scoreless through three quarters. Fudd finished with three points on a 1-of-3 shooting night, while Williams scored two while shooting 1 of 7 from the field.
Gamecocks too strong up front
The Gamecocks dominated despite shooting just 22 of 60 (36.7%) from the field and hitting 3 of 16 (18.8%) 3-point attempts. Field-goal percentage doesn’t matter much when you rebound more than half your misses, which is exactly what the Gamecocks did.
South Carolina was the third-best offensive rebounding team in the nation this season with 17.1 per game. By halftime on Sunday, it had collected 16. When the game was over, it held a 21-6 edge on the offensive glass and a 49-24 advantage in total rebounds. UConn didn’t stand a chance against a bigger, stronger front line anchored by National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.
Boston earns MOP honors
Boston didn’t have her best offensive night in an 11-point effort against the Huskies. But her game-high 16 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, fell just eight short of UConn’s team total and ensured that her presence was a significant one on Sunday’s game.
Boston earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after averaging 17 points and 17 rebounds in wins over Louisville and UConn. A case can be made that Henderson was South Carolina’s most valuable player on Sunday. She finished with four assists, three steals and two rebounds to go with her 26 points while shooting 9 of 20 from the field and 3 of 6 from 3-point distance — South Carolina’s only makes from beyond the arc. She was also tasked with guarding Bueckers.
“My teammates trusted in me,” Henderson told Rowe. “I felt like since Day 1 we’ve been putting in the hard work and waiting for this moment. And tonight I just found open shots.”
As for limiting Bueckers in South Carolina’s second win over UConn after a 73-57 win in November?
“I know I had to use my speed to make sure I stayed with her,” Henderson continued. “I think that’s what we’ve been practicing all along. And the first time we played them, that really worked out well for us. I knew to come into this came, had to bring the same momentum.”
The win concludes a dominant South Carolina campaign that saw the Gamecocks finish 35-2 and maintain the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll since being declared the nation’s top team in the preseason. Only North Carolina in the Sweet 16 stayed within single digits of South Carolina in NCAA tournament as the Gamecocks finished the season with an 80-50 win over Creighton in the Elite Eight, a 72-59 win over fellow No. 1 seed Louisville in the Final Four and finally Sunday’s 15-point win over a UConn program that entered the game with an 11-0 record in national championship games.
Is the UConn Dynasty Done? Auriemma Likes the Outlook for Next Year
The Huskies, winners of 11 national championships, have gone without a title since 2016. Connecticut has spent almost three decades as the most formidable threat in women’s college basketball, dangerous even when not ranked No. 1 in Division I for weeks at a time — which is where the Huskies spent a significant portion of that time.
But after losing to South Carolina on Sunday night, the Huskies no longer have a perfect record in N.C.A.A. championship games. For the first time since 2008, some UConn players will graduate without having won a national title. And the program, so often thought of as a dynasty, is in the midst of its longest championship drought since winning the first of its 11 championships in 1995. Though it has been a fixture in the Final Four in recent years, its last championship was in 2016.
“This is UConn, so it’s a national championship or nothing,” the star sophomore guard Paige Bueckers said after the game, looking out at reporters with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m obviously upset, frustrated and disappointed.”
Her coach, Geno Auriemma, was uncharacteristically subdued while speaking with reporters after the game. Instead of ascribing the defeat to his players’ “immaturity,” as he did after last year’s national semifinal loss to Arizona, the second-winningest coach in Division I women’s basketball history insisted he was proud of his team for making it this far.