MINNEAPOLIS — It was a 40-minute championship game, yes.
But if South Carolina went on Sunday to show that an NCAA title could be practically won in the first four minutes of a contest, even against a powerful, fiery and rebellious Connecticut, consider the pressure-tested and proven hypothesis on the sport’s biggest scene.
The ingredients for a rout would ebb at times, but the Gamecocks eventually defeated the Huskies with ease, 64-49, to claim their second national championship in franchise history.
The main problem for UConn on a night full of them was that there was almost never time for a fight that never seemed so fair.
At the first timeout of the evening, less than three and a half minutes into the game, South Carolina had a 9-point lead and baskets of four starters. He had 7 second chance points and 8 rebounds. UConn had a lone layup and, other than a block, not much else he would like to see again.
It was an early, emphatic capture of the glory UConn had always—always—cultivated in national championship games, such a jaw-dropping and tone-setting assault that the thicket of basketball fans inside the Target Center could have been forgiven for wondering if they paid handsomely to stumble upon a first-round tournament contest 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 beat UConn’s Geno Auriemma in a national championship game, the Gamecocks have gone from a program mediocre at a marquee that became a playoff mainstay. and as much a destination for prized recruits as any place in the nation.
And that was before Sunday’s showcase in Minneapolis.
But South Carolina, unlike injury-prone UConn, was a wire-to-wire favorite to reach the championship game and win a title. The Gamecocks opened the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, a spot they never relinquished, with a roster that included five returning starters and 11 returning winners.
Aliyah Boston, a 6-foot-5 junior forward from the U.S. Virgin Islands, was the centerpiece from the get-go, a female hardwood juggernaut with a double-double as a career average and, by the end of the season, a reputation as perhaps “the hardest person to keep in America,” as Auriemma marveled on Saturday.
“She scores if there’s one, two, three, four people on her,” Auriemma said. ” It does not matter. She is able to carve out the space she wants. She gets the ball on the rim whenever she wants. She bounces no matter what ball she is chasing. She just has a talent.
She also had talent around her. Zia Cooke, a junior guard, came to Minneapolis with three 20-point games this season. Brea Beal has proven to be one of the most threatening defenders in all of women’s basketball. Destanni Henderson was a supernaturally quick senior guard who was among the Southeastern Conference’s assist leaders, and Victaria Saxton, a forward from Rome, Georgia, played on the boards and hitting shots. .
They would lose just twice — by 1 in overtime at Missouri on Dec. 30 and by 2 to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championship Game — before storming the NCAA Tournament. Going into the game on Sunday, two days after every South Carolina starter posted double-digit scores in the Final Four contest against Louisville, the Gamecocks were averaging nearly 70 points per game, holding their rivals within 45 and dominating the game on the boards. , with a tournament rebound margin of plus-19.4, the best in the field.
They’ve also been exceptional at keeping their opponents in single-digit points per quarter. Going into Sunday’s game, the Gamecocks had done it 39 times. The Huskies were an unlikely victim for the 40th edition. But they were there after the first, after the Gamecocks had more than twice as many shots and four times as many rebounds.
Six South Carolina players scored in the first. Paige Bueckers, UConn’s second-year guard extraordinaire, didn’t manage a single point and the Huskies finished the quarter 14 points behind.
The Huskies offense rumbled more in the second period, with UConn’s rebound improving sharply and Bueckers scoring 9 points in the period. And though Boston played much of the quarter, UConn held it scoreless. South Carolina’s advantage, made possible by their overwhelming command and capitalization on the night’s second chances, fell to 8 by halftime.
The Gamecocks would further push their lead into third. But the game tightened sharply when South Carolina’s score went into a dry spell of more than four minutes.
Bueckers, however, opened a 10-point streak for the Huskies with a jumper, part of an effort that included 14 points and 6 rebounds on the night. When Evina Westbrook extended UConn’s margin to 6 with a 3-pointer, the team’s second successful shot from behind the arc in 30 seconds, the Target Center echoed as if Connecticut had planted a flag in the middle of the ground.
But Henderson, who had scored the first points of the night for South Carolina and easily led his team’s scoring on Sunday, with a career-high 26 points, quickly narrowed the margin to 9 for the start of the final quarter. . Henderson and Saxton quickly used a succession of layups and free throws to rebuild a double-digit lead for the Gamecocks.
On Saturday, Henderson preached that South Carolina should just “listen to our game plan and execute it.” She explained how it could be “a great game, 40 good minutes”.
For the Gamecocks, maybe aside from the 22 seconds at the start when they were just tied, it was. All Auriemma could do, after all this time, was sit on the sidelines with her arms crossed.