The two programs have played each other 11 times, with UConn leading the series 9-2. But South Carolina has won two of the past three meetings, including the only matchup between the two squads this season. Behind a 23-5 run over the final 12:30 of the game, the Gamecocks beat the Huskies 73-57 in a 1-2 showdown in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas on Nov. 22.
Sunday marks the second time the Huskies and Gamecocks have met in the NCAA tournament. UConn won their 2018 regional final matchup 94-65.
Neither UConn coach Geno Auriemma nor South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has lost in the championship game, though Auriemma has more experience. He is 11-0 all-time, while Staley is 1-0.
“We’re gonna play off this year,” Staley said. “We’re not going to play their history.”
Here’s how Sunday’s season finale might play out.
How have both teams grown and improved since their Nov. 22 game in the Bahamas? And what can that game tell us about how Sunday might play out?
Barnes: South Carolina’s core trio in Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke showed up for the Gamecocks, and they will need to again in the championship game against UConn. The Huskies have a different starting lineup and are healthier than they were in the Bahamas. Azzi Fudd played only 10 minutes in the first game, and had an ailing foot injury that wasn’t publicly known at the time.
Now she starts and has become an important contributor for UConn on both ends of the floor. I know that I always say Fudd will be important, but I mean it. Her ability to shoot the ball forces defenses to pay attention to her. And she has become more aggressive off the dribble and shown skill as a facilitator, albeit in glimpses.
Fudd’s addition to the Huskies’ starting lineup is one of the biggest changes from the first game. But ultimately the November meeting told us what we already know to be true: This game will be a battle of execution. If Henderson and Cooke play like they did the first time around, making good decisions and hitting shots, South Carolina looks pretty close to unbeatable.
Voepel: I’m not sure the Gamecocks have had to grow a lot as much as they’ve had to maintain a level of excellent play all season. They have been No. 1 wire to wire because of their experience (starting two seniors and three juniors), relative good health and defense, which Staley has called the best she has had at South Carolina. The target has been on their backs all season, and even though they lost the SEC final to Kentucky, for the most part the Gamecocks have met every challenge.
As for UConn, Auriemma is accustomed to his program being a machine that runs over the opposition like a lawnmower over grass. He has built it and trained his players that way for nearly 40 years. So dealing with injuries to key performers, uncharacteristic missed shots, poor execution — stuff almost every coach faces at some point every season — has convinced Auriemma that this team has overcome miraculous odds to get to the championship game.
But let’s remember Christyn Williams, Paige Bueckers and Fudd were all No. 1 recruits in their class. The Huskies have a great deal of talent that got healthy — or healthy enough — at the right time, and have one of the most successful coaching staffs in any collegiate sport ever. Playing for a championship again is not unexpected for UConn, even though the road here was bumpier than Auriemma would have preferred.
Geno Auriemma discusses how UConn will go about avenging its early-season loss to South Carolina in the women’s national championship.
UConn’s injury-depleted frontcourt vs. Aliyah Boston. The backcourt battle. What matchup is the difference-maker Sunday?
Voepel: The guard play likely will decide this game. If Stanford’s starting guards had just a slightly better performance in the semifinals, the Cardinal would be in the final. Haley Jones had 20 points and 11 rebounds, but Lexie Hull, Lacie Hull and Anna Williams were a combined 3-of-17 from the field for eight points. The Cardinal had so many frustrating possessions in that loss. That is what South Carolina has to avoid, and it helps that the Gamecocks do have a true point guard with a lot of experience in Henderson.
UConn’s guards are the heart of its team, with several truly elite players. The Gamecocks have in Brea Beal as good a perimeter defender as there is in the country. Also, Saniya Rivers is a 6-1 freshman guard who physically is a lot like Beal, just not with her experience and expertise. But she’s a good defensive weapon to have in reserve; she played 20 minutes against Louisville, getting 3 points, 4 assists and 2 steals.
Barnes: Boston is going to get hers regardless of how the UConn frontcourt plays. The consensus national player of the year put up 23 points and grabbed 18 boards in the Gamecocks’ Final Four matchup with Louisville. Against UConn in the Bahamas in November, Boston had a similar performance, with 22 points and 15 rebounds.
Containing Boston is likely off the table, so the primary matchup I’m watching is Victaria Saxton vs. Aaliyah Edwards. Saxton was a nonfactor in their first meeting, and Edwards also wasn’t at her best. But both frontcourt players are contributing key minutes for their teams, and they have the ability to do similar things on the offensive boards and in transition.
If Edwards (or Olivia Nelson-Ododa, for that matter) gets into foul trouble as she did against Stanford, Evina Westbrook stepping in to guard the South Carolina bigs will likely be too tall a task (see what I did there?). Should that happen, don’t be surprised if UConn pulls out a zone defense to try to paper over the lack of post depth.
Whether it’s postseason experience, program history or the head coaches, do the intangibles tip the scale toward either team?
Voepel: The main intangible in favor of UConn is Auriemma’s track record in title games. It’s amazing to get there that many times. To win every one of them is mind-boggling. But UConn often has come into championship games as the overwhelming favorite. Some years — 2002, 2009, 2013 and 2016 come to mind — it seemed inconceivable the Huskies could lose. This year, South Carolina has consistently been the best team, and the Gamecocks have the consensus national player of the year. Still, we have to take into account that the UConn team playing right now is not the one that lost some unexpected games this season. It’s close to the team UConn was expected to have. So it should be a close and tense contest.
Which team wins the 2022 NCAA title?
Debbie Antonelli: South Carolina
Katie Barnes: South Carolina
Charlie Creme: South Carolina
Alexa Philippou: UConn
Mechelle Voepel: South Carolina