MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Dawn Staley hoisted the championship trophy high, strutted around the court and paused for a brief victory dance. She handed out the gear to the group of South Carolina students, then returned to midfield for more merriment.
The Gamecocks hit all the right notes this season and they finished with a masterpiece.
Staley’s team beefed up their defense and dominated on the glass, beating UConn 64-49 on Sunday night to end the Huskies’ unbeaten streak in title games. Destanni Henderson scored a career-high 26 points, Aliyah Boston added 11 points and 16 rebounds, and the Gamecocks handed the Geno Auriemma Huskies their first loss in 12 NCAA title games.
“We played every possession like it was our last possession,” said Staley, the first black men’s or women’s coach with two Division I titles. “They were determined to be champions today.”
A year ago, South Carolina lost in the Final Four when Boston missed a layup before the buzzer.
“Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it since last season. Everyone had a picture of me crying,” Boston, who was the Final Four MVP, said. “Today we’re national champions and I’m in tears.”
With Staley in charge in a Louis Vuitton letter jacket, South Carolina took UConn to school on the boards and crowned a wire-to-wire run as the nation’s No. Associated Press. The Gamecocks also won the championship in 2017 with A’ja Wilson leading.
This time it was Boston – the AP Player of the Year – and her South Carolina teammates who dominated the game’s biggest stage. The Gamecocks edged out UConn 49-24, including a 21-6 advantage over offensive boards.
“We knew tonight that if we didn’t hold our place on the boards, it was going to be a really bad night for us,” Auriemma said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
They also put down star Paige Bueckers and the Huskies on defense, as they have done all season.
“They deserved it 100%,” Auriemma said. “They’ve been the best team all year.”
It was South Carolina night from the start. The Gamecocks (35-2) took an 11-2 lead, grabbing nearly every rebound at both ends of the field. They were leading 22-8 after one quarter to the delight of their fans, who made the trip to Minneapolis to be part of the sold-out crowd.
UConn (30-6) trailed by 16 in the second quarter before Bueckers, a Minnesota native, got going. After taking just one shot in the first quarter, she scored nine points in the second to bring the Huskies to 35-27 at halftime. She finished with 14.
An 8-2 run to start the third quarter put South Carolina up 43-29 before the Huskies finally started to connect behind the arc. UConn missed its first eight 3-point attempts until Caroline Ducharme made one from the wing and Evina Westbrook followed another to bring the Huskies to 43-37.
It’s as close as it gets thanks to Henderson.
The senior guard made a three-point play to close out the third quarter, then got the team’s first four points in the fourth to restore the double-digit lead. The Huskies couldn’t recover.
“My teammates believed in me again. We worked so hard from day one, and it finally paid off, all of my hard work, all of my focus,” Henderson said. “Me trusting the process. Me trusting God. She just put me in a position just to be awesome, and today we’re national champions.
It 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 semi-finals, losing twice in overtime, before holding off Stanford on Friday night. The Huskies were trying to win their 12th title in the same city where they won their first 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.
“We just didn’t have enough,” he said. “They were just too good for us.”
It had been one of the toughest seasons of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn has weathered the loss of eight players through 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 returned in late February but wasn’t at the same level that won her AP Player of the Year as a freshman last season.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Gamecocks have been strong defensemen throughout the season, ranking third nationally with 50.5 points allowed per game. They were even sharper in the NCAA Tournament, holding their opponents to 44.8 points going into Sunday’s final.
Henderson had three interceptions, Boston blocked two shots and South Carolina forced 15 turnovers. The Gamecocks’ plus-25 rebound margin was the second-largest ever in a title game.
UConn: The Huskies lose three seniors in Christyn Williams, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, but still have a strong squad led by Bueckers and rookie Azzi Fudd. If the Huskies stay healthy, they’ll have a good shot at fighting for next year’s title.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose Henderson and Victaria Saxton but have all the talent to repeat as champions.
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