A year ago almost to the day, the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the Connecticut Huskies for the first time in program history before a sold-out, hometown Colonial Life Arena crowd.
The top-ranked freshman recruiting class of 2019-20 featured Aliyah Boston (a versatile post), Zia Cooke (a high-scoring guard) and Brea Beal (a defensive menace), who played with poise and confidence alongside steady-minded seniors Tyasha Harris (point guard) and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (forward).
Now that the seniors have graduated and moved on to the WNBA’s Dallas Wings and Minnesota Lynx, respectively, those women, now sophomores, are tasked with quickening their learning curve in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference (SEC) and against powerhouse programs outside of it. An early-season loss to the NC State Wolfpack got their attention, and the Gamecocks (15-1, 10-0 SEC) buckled down and put together a 12-game winning streak that includes six victories over ranked teams (and seven wins overall against ranked programs).
Highlight: On-target pass by Destanni Henderson to Aliyah Boston on the break
Just as the South Carolina freshmen last year helped head coach Dawn Staley pick her first win against Connecticut, the Huskies (13-1, 11-0) have a notable freshman of their own in 2021: Paige Bueckers, who UConn hopes can lead the effort to avenge last season’s loss.
The only freshman on the Wooden Award Late-Season Watch list, Bueckers — the No. 1 recruit and reigning Big East Player and Big East Freshman — leads the Huskies with 20.4 points per game and ranks second in rebounds (5.1 per game). She also averages 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals — both team highs.
Highlight: A reverse layup is just one tool in Bueckers’ high-scoring arsenal
Paige Bueckers with the reverse! pic.twitter.com/VwCeZZqiGX— UConn Women’s Basketball (@UConnWBB) February 6, 2021
To disrupt the Gamecocks’ offense, Bueckers will need 6-foot-5 junior center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who averages a team-high 7.1 boards per game and 13.5 points, to strive for double-digit rebounding. Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook need to contribute their trusty double digits, and Aliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 forward from Ontario, Canada, who leads Connecticut with 69.9 percent field-goal shooting will need to make the most of her minutes off the bench as, perhaps, the perfect counterpunch to South Carolina’s Aliyah — Boston — who has had a few low-scoring games, sometimes due to foul trouble.
Still, Boston is up for the Lisa Leslie Award for a reason. Her 13.7 points per game are a team-second behind Zia Cooke’s 16.2. Boston leads the Gamecocks with 2.9 blocks per contest; Victaria Saxton (1.8) and Laeticia Amihere (1.2) also average at least a block per game — a strength against Connecticut, which has only Nelson-Ododa (1.9) averaging at least one block per outing.
Rewind: The last meeting between the Gamecocks and Huskies
In the these teams’ last meeting (on Feb. 10, 2020), the Gamecocks got off to an 11-2 start for the first quarter and never relented on the way to a 70-52 win. Crystal Dangerfield (now with the Minnesota Lynx and the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year) led all scorers with 28 points, but only two of her teammates chipped in double-figure scoring: Megan Walker and Nelson-Ododa, with 10 apiece; Nelson-Ododa also had nine rebounds.
For South Carolina, Boston (13 points, 12 rebounds) and Harris (19 points, 11 assists) tallied double-doubles and Cooke (15 points) and Herbert Harrigan (10 points) also achieved double-figure scoring.
South Carolina Gamecocks (15-1, 10-0 SEC) at Connecticut Huskies (13-1, 11-0 BIG EAST)
When: Monday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT
How to watch/listen: Fox Sports 1
Keys to the matchup: Rebounding, points off turnovers. The Huskies average 87.1 points per game and allow just 54.4, while the Gamecocks average 82.4 points per game and allow 58.9 — factors relatively equal considering head coach Geno Auriemma’s team has faced just four ranked teams in 2020-21 and defeated three. Rebounding, therefore, may decide this matchup. South Carolina averages 50.3 boards per game (to Connecticut’s 41.1), and the entire team — from Boston, Beal, Saxton and Amihere to the last player off the bench — plays committed defense. But where the Huskies have the edge is points scored off turnovers. Connecticut and South Carolina get whistled for turnovers at a near-identical clip — 14.4 for the Huskies per game and 13.9 for the Gamecocks. Yet, the Huskies force their opponents into a commanding 18.7 lost possessions per contest (to the Gamecocks forcing 14.3) and convert them into 24.5 points per game (to the Gamecocks’ average of 15.2 points off turnovers each outing).
Reason to watch: It’s a test of legitimacy. Has Staley and her team really ushered in a new era of dominant team? Or was last year’s first-ever win against the storied UConn program just a fluke? Do the Huskies still have it or is it the Gamecocks’ time? All will be answered based on who wins, and how. The positional battles — Bueckers vs. Cooke at guard, Nelson-Ododa vs. Boston down low — should be thrilling.