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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

South Carolina, a dominant force all season, delivers a championship over UConn

Victaria Saxton, left, and Aliyah Boston, right, sharing a hug after winning a national championship for South Carolina.

By Alan Blinder

It was a 40-minute championship game, yes.

But if South Carolina set out Sunday to show that an NCAA title could be all but won in a contest’s first four minutes, even against a mighty, sporadically feisty Connecticut, consider the hypothesis pressure-tested and proven on the sport’s greatest stage.

The makings of a rout would ebb in certain moments, but the Gamecocks eventually defeated the Huskies with ease 64-49 to claim the second national championship in their history.

The principal trouble for UConn on a night full of them was that there was barely any room for a sustained fight in a game that quickly rocketed out of reach, playing out like a mismatch.

By the first timeout of the evening, not even 3 1/2 minutes into play, South Carolina had a 9-point lead and baskets from four starters. It had 7 second-chance points and eight rebounds. UConn had a lone layup and, aside from a block, not much else it would wish to watch again.

It was an early and emphatic seizure of the glory that UConn had always — always — cultivated in national championship games, an onslaught so thoroughly stunning and tone-setting that the thicket of basketball fans inside the Target Center in Minneapolis could have been forgiven for wondering whether they had paid handsomely to stumble into a first-round tournament contest back in Columbia, South Carolina.

Instead, they saw South Carolina build a rebound margin of 25, among the largest in the history of women’s basketball championship games, and seal its second title in six seasons.

“Tonight, we just didn’t have enough,” said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who said he believed the game’s opening minutes had been pivotal ones, despite UConn’s efforts later on. “They were just too good for us.”

Under coach Dawn Staley, who took over in Columbia in 2008 and Sunday became the first coach to beat Auriemma in a national championship game, the Gamecocks have gone from a middling program to a marquee one that has become a mainstay of the postseason and as much a destination for prized recruits as any place in the country.

And that was before Sunday’s showcase in Minneapolis.

“They did not want to lose this battle,” Staley said of her players.

But South Carolina, unlike injury-prone UConn, was a wire-to-wire favorite to reach the championship game and deliver a title. The Gamecocks opened the season ranked first in the Associated Press poll, a spot they never surrendered, 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 juggernaut of the hardwood with a double-double as a career average and, by season’s end, a reputation as perhaps “the hardest person in America to guard,” as Auriemma had marveled before the game.

“She scores if there’s one, two, three, four people on her,” Auriemma said over the weekend. “It doesn’t matter. She’s able to carve out the space she wants. She gets the ball on the rim whenever she wants. She rebounds whichever ball she goes after. She just has a knack.”

She also had talent around her. Zia Cooke, a junior guard, arrived in Minneapolis with three 20-point games this season. Brea Beal proved herself one of the most menacing defenders in all of women’s basketball. Destanni Henderson was a preternaturally speedy senior guard who was among the Southeastern Conference’s assist leaders, and Victaria Saxton, a forward from Rome, Georgia, starred off the boards and in slapping down shots.

They would lose only twice — by 1 in overtime at Missouri on Dec. 30, and by 2 to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game — before they stormed through the NCAA Tournament. Entering Sunday’s game, two days after every South Carolina starter posted double-digit scoring outings in its Final Four contest against Louisville, the Gamecocks were averaging almost 70 points per game, holding their rivals to less than 45 and dominating play off the boards, with a tournament rebounding margin of plus-19.4, the best in the field.

They were also exceptional at holding opponents to single-digit point totals per quarter. Entering Sunday’s game, the Gamecocks had done it 39 times. The Huskies were an improbable victim for the 40th edition. But there they were after the first, after the Gamecocks had gotten off more than twice as many shots and collected four times as many rebounds.

Six South Carolina players scored in the first quarter. Paige Bueckers, the extraordinary sophomore guard for UConn who would later pronounce herself “upset, frustrated, disappointed” by the end of the night, went scoreless in the period, and the Huskies finished the quarter trailing by 14.

The Husky offense rumbled more in the second quarter, with UConn’s rebounding improving and Bueckers scoring 9 points. And though Boston, who finished the game with 11 points, played much of the quarter, UConn held her scoreless. The South Carolina advantage, made possible by its overwhelming command of the night’s second chances and aided by guard play on the perimeter that kept UConn clear of clean looks, fell to 8 by the half.

The Gamecocks, whose coach had a piece of the net from the 2017 championship game in her pocket Sunday, would push their lead further in the third. But the game tightened sharply when South Carolina’s scoring entered a dry spell of more than four minutes.

Bueckers, though, opened a 10-point run for the Huskies with a jumper, part of an effort that included 14 points and six 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 Target Center echoed as if Connecticut had planted a flag at midcourt.

But Henderson, who had scored the first points of the evening for South Carolina and easily led her team’s scoring Sunday, with a career-high 26 points, promptly pushed the margin back to 9 for the start of the final quarter.

“I just found open gaps, and when they collapsed in the paint, Aliyah or whoever it was who was passing the ball just found me out on the perimeter, and I just let it fly,” she said after the game.

Henderson and Saxton soon used a succession of layups and free throws to rebuild a double-digit lead for the Gamecocks, who had 17 points from the line, compared to UConn’s 1.

All Auriemma could do, after all this time as the maestro who had led UConn to 14 consecutive Final Fours, was stand on the sideline, his arms crossed, waiting for the confetti to fall on Staley and South Carolina.

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