MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Dawn Staley and South Carolina buttoned up on defense and won their second national championship, stifling UConn for a 64-49 victory Sunday night that ended the Huskies’ undefeated streak in title games.
With Staley calling the shots in a $5,000 letterman jacket, South Carolina took UConn to school on the boards and capped a wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in the country in The Associated Press poll. The Gamecocks also won the championship in 2017 with A’ja Wilson leading the way.
This time it was Boston – the AP Player of the Year – and her fellow South Carolina post players who dominated on the game’s biggest stage. The Gamecocks outrebounded UConn by 49-24, including a 21-6 advantage on offensive boards. They also clamped down on star Paige Bueckers and the Huskies on defense, just like they did all season long.
It was South Carolina’s night from the start. The Gamecocks (35-2) jumped out to an 11-2 lead, grabbing nearly every rebound on both ends of the court. They led to 22-8 after one quarter much to the delight of their faithful fans, who made the trip to Minneapolis to be part of the sellout crowd.
UConn (30-6) trailed by 16 in the second quarter before Bueckers, a Minnesota native, got going. After having just one shot in the first quarter, she scored nine points in the second to get the Huskies within 35-27 at the half. She finished with 14.
An 8-2 run to start the third quarter put South Carolina up 43-29 before the Huskies finally started connecting from behind the arc. UConn missed its first eight 3-point attempts until Caroline Ducharme made one from the wing and Evina Westbrook followed with another to get the Huskies within 43-37.
That’s as close as they could get because of Henderson.
The senior guard had a three-point play to close the third quarter and then had the team’s first four points in the fourth to restore the double-digit lead, and the Huskies couldn’t recover.
This was UConn’s first trip to the championship game since 2016, when the Huskies won the last of four straight titles. Since then, the team has suffered heartbreaking defeats in the national semifinals, losing twice in overtime, before holding off Stanford on Friday night. The Huskies were trying to win their 12th title in the same city they won their first one in 1995.
Auriemma said Saturday that when his team had won each of its 11 titles, the Huskies entered the game as the better team. They certainly weren’t on Sunday.
It had been one of the most challenging seasons of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn overcame losing eight players for at least two games with injury or illness, including Bueckers, who missed nearly three months with a left knee injury suffered in early December. She came back in late February but wasn’t at the same level that earned her AP Player of the Year as a freshman last season.
- The national title victory also clinched a program-record with 35 wins, breaking a tie with the 2014-15 team. Of those 35 wins, the Gamecocks finish with a perfect 14-0 record against nationally ranked teams, another program single-season record.
- Dawn Staley is just the sixth head coach in women’s NCAA tournament history to win more than one national championship.
- Aliyah Boston was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, after averaging 17 points, 17 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game in Minneapolis.
- Boston’s 11 points and 16 rebounds give her 30 double-doubles for the season. The junior entered the 2021-22 season with 30 career double-doubles in her first two seasons combined (64 games).
- Destanni Henderson truly saved her best for last; the senior point guard scored a career-high 26 points in the game, including 10 in the fourth quarter alone. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Henderson is the first player since 2000 to have a career-high scoring game in the national championship.
- Henderson’s performance gives her 1,220 career points, moving her up to 24th in program history for career points and her 157 career 3s made is eighth in program history.
- Sunday marked the first loss in a NCAA championship game for UConn.
- Holding the Huskies 25 points under their season scoring average, Sunday extended a streak of 47-straight games where South Carolina held its opponent to under their season average for scoring.
- The Gamecocks set the tone early and won the hustle game in the opening quarter, starting the first five minutes of the game with a 13-2 run. Of those 13 points, nine came off second-chance opportunities as Carolina had six offensive rebounds. Zia Cooke started with the hot hand shooting, hitting her first three shots.
- The defense held UConn to its fewest points in a quarter this season – eight – in the first quarter, jumping out to a 22-8 lead. The Huskies were out-shot 20-9 by Carolina and had more turnovers (5) than made field goals (4).
- The rebounding advantage held for the entire first half. The Gamecocks went into the locker room with a 25-13 advantage on the glass and 16 offensive rebounds that led to 17 second-chance points.
- South Carolina ended the game doubling up UConn on the boards, 49-24, highlighted by a 21-6 advantage in offensive rebounds and +17 in second-chance points (22-5). The +25 rebounding margin is the second-largest in a title game in NCAA tournament history.
- The Gamecocks end their NCAA tournament run with 294 rebounds, breaking Duke’s 2006 record for most total rebounds in a NCAA tournament.
- South Carolina’s 45.5 points per game allowed in its run of six NCAA tournament games is the second-lowest by a men’s or women’s champion over the last 75 years – behind only the 2010 UConn women (43.0).
COURTESY SOUTH CAROLINA ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS