Junior guard Zia Cooke said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was pretty calm during her halftime speech in Monday’s Battle 4 Atlantis championship game against UConn in the Bahamas.
“She just gave us a few plays that she thought would work for us,” said Cooke, whose top-ranked Gamecocks trailed by three points at the break. “She told us we were in the game. She kept us all motivated.”
And maybe Staley simply reminded the Gamecocks that they are a really good team. They showed that in rallying to beat UConn 73-57, giving South Carolina its first victory in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in program history after going 0-4 in those games previously.
The Gamecocks displayed a resilience that most teams don’t against UConn. South Carolina was down as much as 13 in the first half, which is usually a big danger zone for Huskies opponents. Once they get a double-digit lead, it is very hard to reel them in. The Gamecocks cut the deficit to 36-33 by halftime.
Their second-half defense was a clinic, holding UConn to 21 points over the two quarters. The Gamecocks cut down on their turnovers, which helped limit UConn’s transition game, and they took smart shots.
South Carolina is now 6-0 with three victories over top-10 teams NC State, Oregon and UConn. The Gamecocks have two more top-10 matchups in December — vs. Maryland on Dec. 12 and Stanford on Dec. 21 — and then they meet UConn again on Jan. 27 when the Huskies visit Columbia, South Carolina, for a rematch.
Here is everything we learned from Monday’s game and how it will affect the Gamecocks and Huskies going forward.
South Carolina’s defense wears teams down
And if you can do that to UConn, you can do it to anybody. We know how good the Gamecocks have been at that end of the court, but Staley explained that it’s not just the obvious plays South Carolina made (such as 11 steals) but the cumulative effect.
“Our defense did a super job for 40 minutes,” Staley said. “You didn’t really see the impact in the first half. The third and fourth quarters are when you start feeling what our defense does to teams.”
Does Staley think this team’s defense, because of its depth, is the best she has ever had? Is it better, for example, than the defense of the 2017 team that won the national championship and had players like A’ja Wilson, Alaina Coates, Tyasha Harris and Allisha Gray?
This team has Aliyah Boston, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Brea Beal, Victaria Saxton, Destanni Henderson, Laeticia Amihere, Kamilla Cardoso and Cooke — everyone on the roster contributes to the defense.
“You’re going to get me in a little bit of trouble,” Staley joked of having to pick one group over another, “but yes, this is the best and the deepest.”
UConn’s 21 points in the second half — 3 in the fourth quarter — said it all.
“Their defense — they were very aggressive, obviously,” UConn guard Christyn Williams said. “And we just weren’t making the right reads at the right place at the right time.”
UConn has work to do on offense, especially inside
Yes, it’s just one game. But the Huskies beat South Florida 60-53 on Sunday. It’s the first time since 2012 that UConn has been held to 60 points or fewer in consecutive games.
UConn got 43 of its 57 points Monday from its starting guards: Paige Bueckers (19), Evina Westbrook (14) and Williams (10). Starting forwards Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa combined for 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said that having junior forward Aubrey Griffin (out with injury) would have helped. But he acknowledged this was more an execution problem than a personnel problem.
The Huskies benefited from South Carolina turnovers and misses in the first half to score in transition. But when the Gamecocks tightened up on mistakes in the second half, UConn wasn’t as good in half-court execution. A lot of credit, as already stated, goes to a stifling South Carolina defense.
“I think in the fourth quarter, especially, we just couldn’t really get in a flow offensively, and it was just difficult for us,” Westbrook said. “We knew what we were doing, but we just couldn’t really get into it.”
Geno is going to be Geno
Asked about Bueckers’ performance — she was 8-of-19 from the floor, with 5 rebounds and 7 assists — Auriemma sounded harsh to those less familiar with the UConn mentor’s methods.
“I don’t think she was any good today, to be honest with you,” he said. “The first half, there were a lot of great moments that she had. But for the entire second half, I don’t think she was much of a factor. I don’t know whether she just got tired, she was worn down. But it wasn’t the same Paige we’re used to seeing.”
UConn’s Paige Bueckers gets the ball in transition and drops in the easy floater.
Considering she played 38 minutes Monday and was still the Huskies’ leader in scoring and assists, and tied for the lead in rebounds, Bueckers was hardly a problem. But this is part of Auriemma’s formula — which is time-tested and has been successful with so many other stars — in developing great players. They get challenged — big-time.
Auriemma wants Bueckers to really examine the loss and see what she could have done better. It’s just like in practice, when he’s known to put his team in impossible situations, like 5-on-8, just to see how his players respond.
Auriemma even contradicted himself a bit by also saying that the Huskies were “really, really good” for 30 minutes before things declined in the fourth quarter. Bueckers couldn’t have been that bad if her team was considered “really, really good” for three-fourths of the game. Auriemma also talked about the need for another perimeter shooting threat to blossom to help Bueckers, acknowledging she had a lot on her shoulders. UConn made just three 3-pointers Monday: two from Westbrook and one from Bueckers.
Legendary UConn point guard Sue Bird tells the story of how Auriemma told her before her sophomore season, “Anything that we do wrong is going to be your fault.” It was his way of appealing to her leadership, and it worked spectacularly. Bueckers is facing a similar kind of Auriemma motivational tactic, and she knows it.
South Carolina’s bench can be a beast
We mentioned how the Gamecocks’ depth helps their defense. But the bench is an asset all the way around, as we saw Monday. The 11 points and 10 rebounds the Gamecocks got from their reserves made a difference.
The 6-foot-7 Cardoso and the 6-5 Amihere provide disruptive size and length, and they seem to accept their roles. They would be starting on a lot of teams, but it’s a big plus for the Gamecocks to have them come off the bench.
South Carolina’s Destiny Littleton knocks down a 3-pointer late in the third quarter to give the Gamecocks the lead.
Same for guard Destiny Littleton, who hit two of South Carolina’s five 3-pointers. There have been times in the past against UConn when the Gamecocks just couldn’t get much going from long range, which made defending them easier.
This team doesn’t necessarily need a lot from out there, but it does need the threat. And Littleton is one of the players who can provide it.
“They were just basically collapsed in the paint, daring us to shoot it or drive downhill. It was a lot of cluster in there,” Staley said. “So we had to figure out a way to get somebody in there that could hit a shot. We know Destiny Littleton is not shy about taking any open look.”
Staley praised Littleton for staying ready after she didn’t play much in South Carolina’s two previous Battle 4 Atlantis games; she was in for 10 minutes against Buffalo and six against Oregon. She played 15 minutes against UConn.
“A player like that can pout, and she didn’t,” Staley said. “You heard her the last two games calling out the plays and how we should defend. She just stayed ready. The situation [Monday] called for her to go out there and stretch the floor. I’m super-happy; this is going to be a confidence booster for her.”
It’s a shame that freshman guard Raven Johnson is lost for the season with a knee injury. She would have made the bench even deeper. But it’s still a big weapon as is.
We can look forward to the rematch
With Boston’s dominance as a post, the elite two-way attack of Cooke and Henderson at guard, and get-the-dirty-work-done nature of guard Beal and forward Saxton, the Gamecocks have a very cohesive starting five, along with the aforementioned bench. South Carolina has challenges stacked up in both the nonconference and SEC schedules, and that’s just what Staley wants.
Meanwhile, UConn faces two ranked opponents next month, as the Huskies travel to Georgia Tech on Dec. 9 and host Louisville on Dec. 19, plus the annual showdown with currently unranked but undefeated Notre Dame on Dec. 5. After Big East play starts, UConn will have marquee nonconference games at Oregon on Jan. 17, at South Carolina on Jan. 27 and against Tennessee on Feb. 6.
That rematch with the Gamecocks — at what’s sure to be a packed Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina — will be a good gauge as to how these teams have improved on the way to their ultimate goal of winning the national championship.