April 3, 2022
2022 Final Four Preview: Playing Gamecock basketball is key to South Carolina bringing home the title
“Going for hustle plays, making sure we're giving way more effort. A National Championship is on the line and we're two teams coming to compete and we want to win, so just making sure that we do every single everything."
South Carolina and UConn. Truth be told, it’s the matchup everyone wants to see.
Dawn Staley and Geno Auriemma, two coaching legends competing against each other for a national title.
Aliyah Boston, this year’s National Player of the Year, and Paige Bueckers, last year’s player of the year.
But for this group of Gamecocks, it’s an opportunity to fulfill a dream: winning a national championship.
“I don’t know. People in the crowd might be like they were probably hoping for this game, but, I mean, we’re just playing to make sure we were in a National Championship,” Boston said Saturday during Finals media availability.
“We have been working hard throughout the season, the entire time for this game on Sunday, for us to be here. We are just ready to work. This is the last game of the season for both teams, so we want to be the ones on top.”
Said Destanni Henderson: “I feel like it’s a great matchup. I feel like both teams are going to come out and fight their hardest. This is a big opportunity for us. I mean, every game is an opportunity for us to get better,” Henderson said.
“I just feel like in this moment, like it’s just a huge blessing to be here. I feel like everybody has been working for this moment. We’ve all been playing for each other for this moment.”
Staley, who’ll be playing for her second national title, acknowledged that it’s tough going up against a team that is 11-0 in the finals but isn’t allowing the numbers to quell her team’s enthusiasm.
“Yeah, it’s tough. We’re 1-0, so we’re 100% too,” said Staley while referencing the Gamecocks’ 2017 title. “But it’s incredible. This is our fourth time, and we only have one, so it’s incredibly tough.”
“It comes down to UConn has had the most experience, so it doesn’t faze them to be where they are. I think we’re going to duke it out. There’s no edge. We can talk about the numbers, but the numbers give them no edge. The numbers aren’t going to give us an edge.”
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“Our season, the great season that we’ve had, it’s not going to give us an edge tomorrow(tonight). We’ve got to play it. They’ve got to play it because we’re not going to be thinking about — he is not going to be thinking about, oh, we’re 11-0. We got the 12th one in the bag,” Staley said. “We’re not going to think, oh, here’s UConn. We’re going to automatically win. You can’t go into games thinking that way. You’ve got to play. And we’re going to play off of this year. We’re not going to play their history.”
South Carolina, the No. 1 team in the country all season long, and UConn (No. 6) will tip off at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Huskies lead the series 9-2, but the Gamecocks have claimed two of the last three meetings between the teams, including one earlier this season. Nine games in the series have featured the No. 1 team in the country – four times South Carolina, five times UConn. The two have met in the NCAA Tournament once before – March 26, 2018, in a 94-65 Husky victory.
The Gamecocks defeated Louisville 72-59 to advance to the title game while UConn beat reigning national champs Stanford 63-58.
To defeat the Huskies, the Gamecocks will most certainly need to rely on its defense that has been stifling teams all season long. The Gamecock lead the NCAA Tournament in scoring defense at 44.8 points per game allowed and rank ninth in field goal percentage defense (.336). On the season, only one opponent has reached 70 points and nine ranked opponents failed to reach 60 points.
The Gamecocks have also excelled in the rebounding battle. According to Gamecocks officials, with a +19.4 rebounding margin in the NCAA Tournament – best in the field – South Carolina continues to lead the nation at +17.5 overall. Offensive rebounds are another area where they excel; turning 17.1 offensive boards (3rd in NCAA) into 16.2 second-chance points per game. In the NCAA Tournament, those numbers rise to 19.4 offensive boards and 16.8 second-chance points per Gamecocks.
Boston, who finished the Louisville game scoring her 29th double-double, said they will need to focus on the intangibles to pull out the win.
“Going for hustle plays, making sure we’re giving way more effort. A National Championship is on the line and we’re two teams coming to compete and we want to win, so just making sure that we do every single everything.”
“Just continue to play the way we’ve been playing, making sure we’re executing on offense, making sure the defensive intensity is up because it’s been working for us this entire tournament and all season long. I’m just going to make sure that I’m dominant coming into this game on Sunday.”
Some of the challenges that UConn poses for this Gamecocks team is their reputation as a great transition team, their ability to move the ball well, and their guard play. Combatting them will ensure the Gamecocks execute defensively as they have all year.
“I feel like we’re just going to have to make sure our defense is top tier,” said Henderson. It’s definitely important because I feel like their guards are extremely dominant.
“The guard matchup defensively on our side is going to have to be extremely aggressive and just make sure that we stay locked in, stay in the plays for 40 minutes,” she continued. “We have to impact the game, just make sure that we’re taking good selective shots, not rushing our shots. Just make sure we’re attacking the basket.”
The Huskies will likely come out with “different game plans and different strategies,” Boston said, “so we just need to make sure that we were able to adjust as the game goes on.
Winning the title tonight would help the sting of last year’s Final Four loss for South Carolina, and cap what has been a historic season.
“To win a national championship would mean everything, especially because we came so far, so close last year. We didn’t get the job done. I feel like this year would be a tribute to that and a win for everybody,” said Henderson.
Boston agreed. “Coming in freshman year, got cut short; last year’s Final Four ending wasn’t the way we want it to. But now looking at this third year where we have a chance at a National Championship, so I’m excited to give it everything I got.”