The South Carolina Gamecocks held the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25 women’s poll all season about as tightly as they play defense every night.
The last test for the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament will be the Connecticut Huskies, who produced a lockdown defensive performance of their own against Stanford to reach the national championship.
Aliyah Boston showing who’s the boss in the paint, and Paige Bueckers slithering around the perimeter. Dawn Staley on one bench, and Geno Auriemma on the other. South against North.
Women’s college basketball gets the greats of the game together on the biggest stage as consistently as any sport, and this South Carolina-UConn matchup will be no different.
The Gamecocks (34-2) toppled Louisville 72-59 in the first semifinal at Target Center on Friday night, behind 23 points and 18 rebounds from Boston, the newly minted AP Player of the Year.
“With the awards, I’m really blessed, but my main focus is bringing home a national championship,” Boston said. “I’m just really locked in on that.”
After missing a close-range putback at the buzzer in a one-point loss to Stanford in the Final Four last season, Boston bounced right back this year.
“We knew this was a new team,” Boston said. “We have a lot more depth.”
The Gamecocks have been a team on a mission.
“It’s a relief right now, and it feels great. But we’re going to take in this moment, and we’re not done yet, so we still have unfinished business,” said Destanni Henderson, who hit three 3-pointers on Friday.
UConn (30-5) took care of the defending champion Cardinal, outlasting Stanford 63-58 in the second game. Bueckers had 14 points, five assists and two steals in her hometown to help get Auriemma back to the title game for the first time since 2016.
“Points are hard to come by in this tournament, and today was certainly no different,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to have to win some other way.”
Bueckers and her teammates huddled at midcourt in celebration once the buzzer sounded, most of them holding up index fingers as they shouted, “One more!” at each other in anticipation of the next — and last game — of this nothing-comes-easy season. Eight UConn players had to miss at least two games this season with injury or illness.
These Huskies, the only No. 2 seed in this Final Four, might have overachieved a little, as strange as that sounds for such a dynastic program.
“Coming in, I don’t think we’re the best team there. I don’t think we can win even if we play our ‘A’ game. We need help. We need Stanford to not play their best game. We need them to miss shots they normally make,” Auriemma said.
UConn has never lost in the NCAA final, sporting a staggering 11-0 record in national championships. The four straight titles the Huskies won from 2013-16 was a streak interrupted by none other than South Carolina in 2017, when UConn lost to Mississippi State on an overtime buzzer-beater in the Final Four.
The Gamecocks’ only championship came five years ago.
However, South Carolina beat UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November, pulling away from the Huskies in the fourth quarter with that stifling defense.
And nobody will have more of the spotlight Sunday than Bueckers, the smooth-shooting, lightning-quick sophomore guard. She grew up in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and grew her game at Hopkins High School, just 10 miles west of the arena that’s sold out this weekend with crowds of more than 18,000.
“It doesn’t really matter the location,” said Bueckers, who missed nearly three months this season to a left knee injury. “We’re just trying to win and keep playing with this team.”
For Bueckers, who last year became the first freshman to win the Player of the Year award, this stretch run has been all about getting back up to speed after a long layoff. Twice in the fourth quarter, she grimaced and gingerly walked around after hard landings, but there’s no way that knee — even if it’s not 100% — will keep her from going all out for the title.
“Everybody is going to lay it on the line,” Bueckers said, “and that’s just basketball.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.