April 3, 2022 

UPDATED: How South Carolina smothered UConn’s title hopes

Destanni Henderson's career night came at the right time

MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t that South Carolina did anything all that different. They shot well early, but by the mid-third had fallen into the 30s from the field. They owned the glass, especially offensively, a 16-3 edge on the o-boards by halftime.

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And Aliyah Boston made it simply impossible for the Connecticut Huskies to operate at either end, even on an unusually quiet night for her offensively, just 11 points. But the totality of the Gamecocks — lockdown perimeter defending from Brea Beal and Zia Cooke, Destanni Henderson’s scoring (a career-high 26) plus playmaking — it was all more than enough to elevate South Carolina to the title, 64-49, a result that seemed like destiny for Dawn Staley’s group dating back to the first day of the season.

“I learned that culture matters,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said when it was over, another net around her neck. “I learned that chemistry matters. I learned that the majority of your team really has to be locked in. Like the majority. Because a big part of our team are made up of young players that if they were the majority, they wouldn’t know how to navigate through a season in which you’re the No. 1 team throughout the entire season. And they don’t know the heartaches of what took place last year when we fell short in the semifinals.”

South Carolina began this one at a different speed than UConn, Henderson’s three the keynote, a long two from Cooke that led to a Huskies timeout just over three minutes into the game, South Carolina already up, 11-2. It was a mountain the Huskies simply never managed to climb, getting no closer than six the rest of the way.

“The first five minutes I thought they came out and set the tone right then and there for how the game was going to be played,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said.

Though this was far from Boston’s 28 and 22 against North Carolina in the Round of 16, her presence was instantly felt by her absence. Subbed out for the first time with the Gamecocks up, 15-4, UConn immediately took advantage, Aaliyah Edwards whipping a pass to a cutting Nika Muhl in the lane she wouldn’t have dared try a moment before. Two possessions later, Staley sent Boston back into the game.

By the end of the first quarter, South Carolina led, 22-8, and held a 12-3 edge on the glass.

“We knew South Carolina is a very physical team,” UConn guard Paige Bueckers said. “They rebound the ball extremely well. They defend really well, pressure really well. We just tried to make sure that we were back door cutting and started relieving all the pressure on offense, and just making sure the battle of the boards, nothing comes easy for them. We wanted to box out really well, push the ball in transition to get them running, get them tired. But South Carolina is a great team, they had a great game, and congratulations to them.”

And the UConn answers simply were not forthcoming. Azzi Fudd and Christyn Williams combined for 40 points in the Elite Eight win over NC State. Well into the fourth quarter, the two hadn’t scored a point. Williams did not make her first bucket until there were less than two minutes left, the outcome decided.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa worked hard all game, managing her two fouls with the clear understanding UConn lacked an alternative at the five, but that, combined with Boston’s natural advantage, limited her on the boards, a single rebound well into the fourth quarter.

Still, Bueckers seems to own a preternatural ability to find precisely where within the midrange she can rise and fire, scoring six straight UConn points in the second quarter and carrying them offensively all night. By halftime, even with Fudd and Williams scoreless, and an incredible 16 offensive rebounds collected by South Carolina, UConn only trailed, 35-27.

It got no easier. It’s just so hard to play this South Carolina team. The Gamecocks turned UConn over, had a runout the other way for Cooke, only to see Bueckers circle back on the other end, rise and block Cooke’s shot perfectly… into the hands of Henderson, who promptly drew the foul.

UConn didn’t make a three until early in the fourth quarter, consecutive long balls drawing them to 43-36. It would get no closer. After cutting the lead to 46-39, Henderson and Boston teamed up to put it out of reach, a Boston blocked shot anchoring a pair of Henderson runouts that ballooned the lead back to double figures, 50-39, with 7:54 left.

Destanni Henderson (3) of South Carolina rises amid the UConn defense. (John McClellan photo.)

And when Henderson set a career high in points with a driving layup, she extended the South Carolina lead to 16, punctuated with a fist-pump as the whistles blew for a UConn timeout.

“I really didn’t even know I had a career high, to be honest with you,” Henderson said. “But when people spoke about it and let me know that, it’s just even more of a blessing and just an honor to do it in this moment, a special moment that all of us is going to remember forever. I just feel like my teammates, again, I can’t thank them enough. My coach, for just putting me in the best position. These last two years has been the best two years of college basketball for me.”

In the final moments, a boisterous South Carolina crowd stayed standing, Boston gathering hugs from her teammates, before turning to that crowd and urging them on with her right hand. The confetti dropped, Cocky ran around squeezing everyone he could find, as Bueckers ran off the floor, taking a moment to put her hand on the back of her head coach, Geno Auriemma, walking off the floor of a national final with a loss for the first time ever, to a team Staley said postgame was the best South Carolina team she’s ever coached.

“Obviously when you play in a game like this and you don’t win, it’s just incredibly difficult,” Auriemma said. “To be in the locker room — I’ve been in the other locker room a lot of times, so I know what that feels like, and I’ve been in this locker room, and I know what that feels like. One team is going to be a national champion and the other team is not.

“And I think they deserved it 100 percent. They were the best team all year.”

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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