You cannot win a national championship in February. Few programs understand that better than the UConn women’s basketball team, which has accumulated Final Four appearances at about the rate Meryl Streep collects Oscar nods.
Two days before her team dismantled top-ranked South Carolina 87-62 on Monday night in the 54th meeting between a No. 1 and No. 2 ranked team in women's college basketball history, UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey, the longtime id to head coach Geno Auriemma’s ego, offered insight into how the program approaches regular season mega-matchups.
“It’s a great game in February where you get to test yourself against a really good team to see moving forward what you need to get better at,” Dailey said. “But we are not going to lose or win the national championship on that day. Earlier when you are trying to establish yourself as a program, when we were trying not to be a one-hit wonder, I felt like we had to win such a game. Certainly I want to win against South Carolina but now we can enjoy the atmosphere, the excitement. Because it doesn’t matter who is No. 1 in February. It matters who is No. 1 in April.”
Right now, it’s impossible to see anyone but UConn (23-1) finishing No. 1 in April. It was ruthless against the Gamecocks (22-1), especially from the outside, shooting 55 percent from the field (31-of-56) and going 8-of-11 from 3-point range. Senior All-America wing player Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, whose shooting is so elegant it belongs in an art museum, finished with 23 points including 5-of-6 from 3-point range. The reigning national player of the year, junior forward Breanna Stewart, added 22 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. Sophomore forward Morgan Tuck (17 points and six rebounds) and junior point guard Moriah Jefferson (7-of-9 shooting) were also terrific.
"They humbled us,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.
Prior to the game, UConn’s coaches were concerned about South Carolina’s size, a roster featuring four players over 6-foot-4 and post players who are not only big but athletic. But UConn’s spacing and shooting neutralized any size advantage. UConn is now 17-3 in 1-versus-2 meetings and since the beginning of the 1999-2000 season, UConn is 46-18 when playing a Top 5 team. The win pushed its home win streak to 30 games, the longest active streak in the nation. They have an all-time record of 300-19 at Gampel Pavilion. That is not a misprint.
''I think this was one night, one game in February,'' Auriemma told the Associated Press. ''They are going to be playing deep into the NCAA tournament. I told Dawn, I hope we play them in Tampa. That would be pretty special.''
The meeting did have some interesting moments early. Both teams came out with a lot of energy and the game was tied at 9-9 after the first media time out. There were seven lead changes and six ties over the first 8:06 of play. South Carolina, in fact, took an 18-15 lead with 12:28 left in the opening half on a three-point play from star guard Tiffany Mitchell (17 points) who hit a layup and was fouled by Stewart.
But then came the run, as it always seems to come for UConn. Over the next three minutes, UConn outscored South Carolina 11-0 including three-pointers by Tuck and Mosqueda-Lewis. As the crowd got louder (“Such a tough environment …. small margin for error,” tweeted WNBA star Skylar Diggins, who experienced many a UConn run during her career at Notre Dame) the Huskies continued to push the pace. They extended the lead to 40-24 when freshman guard Kia Nurse made a pair of free throws with 3:42 left and ended the half on a 32-13 run.
Staley is building a program both for today and tomorrow and told ESPN at halftime that “we got a run or two in us.” She was right. The Gamecocks opened the second half by scoring the first six points to cut the lead to 47-37 before Jefferson scored on a circus layup after three minutes to settle her team. South Carolina would never get closer.
No opponent had scored more than 63 points against the Gamecocks this season but UConn passed that mark with 11:08 left on yet another Mosqueda-Lewis three-pointer. That made the score 64-47 and UConn ran away. UConn’s 87 points were the most against a South Carolina team in the last four years. If anything is traditionally underrated about Auriemma’s teams, it is on the defensive side. His teams rarely take possessions off and they held an excellent offensive team to just 39.4 percent shooting from the field.
“When you compare UConn to some other programs, they are sharp, efficient and there is no fat to what they do,” Staley said. “We have a 24-hour rule. We will be dejected for 24 hours and then we have to move on.”
Do not expect South Carolina to slink away after the loss. They are a deep team with quality guards (Mitchell, Bianca Cuevas, Asia Dozier) and post players (A'ja Wilson, Alaina Coates, Aleighsa Welch).
“This is not a destination game for us,” Staley said. “We have a lot of basketball left to play.”
That’s true, but there is now an overwhelming favorite to cut down the nets on the night of April 7 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa. It is a familiar one. Asked by ESPN’s Holly Rowe what the win meant regarding the nation’s true No. 1 team, Stewart smiled.
“I think it speaks for itself,” she said.