MINNEAPOLIS – It was a 40-minute championship, yes.
But if South Carolina starts Sunday to indicate that an NCAA title could only be won in the first four minutes of the game, even against a powerful, fierce, undefeated Connecticut, then consider the hypothesis pressure test and prove it largest stage of the sport.
Making a route would ebb at certain moments, but the Gamecocks eventually defeated the Huskies with ease, 64-49, to claim the second national championship in their history.
The main problem for UConn on a night full of them was that there was hardly ever any time for a fight that never seemed all that honest.
By the first time-out of the evening, not even playing three and a half minutes, South Carolina had a 9-point lead and curves from four starters. It had 7 second chances and 8 rebounds. UConn had a lone layup and, except for one block, he would not want to look much different.
It was an early, whether they had paid handsomely to stumble into a first-round tournament match back in Columbia, SC
Instead, they saw South Carolina win its second title in six seasons. Under Coach Dawn Staley, who took over at Columbia in 2008 and on Sunday became the first coach to defeat UConn’s Geno Auriemma in a national championship game, the Gamecocks have gone from a mediocre program to a marquee one that has become a pillar of the post-season and as much a destination for acclaimed recruits as any place in the nation.
And that was for Sunday’s showcase in Minneapolis.
But South Carolina, unlike injury-plagued UConn, was a wire-to-wire favorite to reach the championship game and deliver a title. The Gamecocks opened the season first in the Associated Press poll, a place they never gave up, with a roster that included five returning starters and 11 returning letter winners.
Aliyah Boston, a 6-foot-5 junior forward from the U.S. Virgin Islands, was the centerpiece from the start, a one-woman hardwood jogger with a double double as a career average and, at the end of the season, , a reputation as perhaps “the toughest person in America to protect”, as Auriemma surprised him on Saturday.
“She scores when there are one, two, three, four people with her,” Auriemma said. “It does not matter. She can make the space she wants. She gets the ball on the edge if she wants to. She rebounds whatever ball she goes for. She just has a skill.”
She also had talent around her. Zia Cooke, a junior guard, arrived in Minneapolis this season with three games of 20 points. Brea Beal proved herself as one of the most threatening defenders in all of women’s basketball. Destanni Henderson was a pretentiously fast senior guard who was among the assistant leaders of the Southeast Conference, and Victoria Saxton, a striker from Rome, Ga., Died from the boards and in hitting shots.
They would only lose twice – with 1 in overtime in Missouri in December. 30, and by 2 to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championship game – before storming through the NCAA Tournament. In the game on Sunday, two days after each South Carolina starter made double-digit outings in the Final Four game against Louisville, the Gamecocks averaged nearly 70 points per game, keeping their rivals at less than 45 and dominating. the game of the boards. , with a tournament recurring margin of plus-19.4, the best in the field.
They were also exceptional in keeping opponents on one-sided point totals per quarter. In Sunday’s game, the Gamecocks had done it 39 times. The Huskies were an unlikely victim for the 40th edition. But there they sat after the first, after the Gamecocks got more than twice as many shots and collected four times as many rebounds.
Six South Carolina players scored in the first. Paige Bueckers, the extraordinary sophomore guard for UConn, failed to score, and the Huskies finished a quarter behind 14.
The Huskies offense rumbled more in the second, with UConn’s rebounding sharply improving and Bueckers scoring 9 in the period. And although Boston played a large portion of the quarter, UConn kept them scoreless. The advantage of South Carolina, made possible by its overwhelming command and capitalization on the second chances of the night, fell to 8 by half.
The Gamecocks would push their lead more in the third. But the game intensified sharply when the South Carolina score entered a dry period of more than four minutes.
Bueckers, however, opened a 10-point run for the Huskies with a jumper, part of an effort that included 14 points and 6 rebounds on the night. When Evina Westbrook brought UConn’s margin to 6 with a 3-pointer, the team’s second successful shot from behind the arc in 30 seconds, the Goal Center resounded as if Connecticut had planted a flag in midfield.
But Henderson, who had scored the first points of the evening for South Carolina and easily led her team’s score on Sunday, with a career-high 26 points, immediately pushed the margin back to 9 before the start of the last quarter. Henderson and Saxton soon used a succession of layups and free throws to reconstruct a double-digit lead for the Gamecocks.
On Saturday, Henderson had preached how South Carolina would simply “listen to our game plan and execute it.” She talked about how it could be “a great game, a great 40 minutes.”
For the Gamecocks, maybe apart from the 22 seconds at the start when they were just equal, it was. All Auriemma could do, after all that time, was stand on the sidelines, arms crossed.