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Destanni Henderson put the perfect capper on her South Carolina career

The leader of the Gamecocks had her best collegiate game on the biggest stage in the national championship.

UConn v South Carolina Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Destanni Henderson started nine games over the first two years of her collegiate career. She came off the bench her entire sophomore season while South Carolina raced to a No. 1 ranking and was favored to win the NCAA title before the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.

Henderson still played in every game for the Gamecocks that season behind Ty Harris and current backcourt mate Zia Cooke, but as the no. 1 point guard recruit in her high school class, she wasn’t contributing on-court as much as she would have expected. Many players in Henderson’s situation would look for a way out; the transfer portal currently has upwards of 900 players, and several of them have found success in new surroundings — just look at Lauren Jensen, who transferred to Creighton because she wouldn’t get playing time behind Caitlin Clark, and then hit the game-winning 3-pointer to knock Clark’s Hawkeyes out of this year’s tournament.

Joyel James would have none of that. James’ daughter had made a commitment to South Carolina, and that meant Destanni Henderson would remain a Gamecock no matter whether she started, came off the bench, or only played during practice.

That commitment led Henderson to Sunday night, when the point guard and leader of this year’s South Carolina squad had a team-high 26 points and four assists in a win over Connecticut, and the Gamecocks became national champions. From reserve to the MVP of the NCAA Tournament’s biggest stage, Henderson’s collegiate arc could not have ended on a higher note.

“Destanni Henderson sat for her first two years, didn’t play a whole lot, and she just waited her turn, and now, I mean, she was the MVP of today. I thought she was the player of the game today,” Dawn Staley said postgame on ESPN. “Not a whole lot of young people would have the patience to finish this thing out... but the patience of her mother, because that’s who it is, Miss James is the one who really kept her right here, she made the commitment, so Destanni Henderson wasn’t going anywhere no matter what was happening because they said, ‘Coach, we believe in you.’ It just makes me feel great inside, like super great inside.”

UConn v South Carolina
Destanni Henderson, national champ.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Henderson waited two years for her starting role at South Carolina, but she wasted no time in seizing control in her first appearance in the national championship. The senior point guard hit a corner three on her team’s first offensive possession, busting out her trademark bow-and-arrow celebration after the ball fell through the net, and gave the Gamecocks a lead they would not relinquish for the next 40 minutes.

The offense was just getting started. With South Carolina already up 9-2, Henderson assisted on four of the team’s next five baskets, jumpers by Zia Cooke, Victaria Saxton, and Laeticia Amihere. Through one quarter, the Gamecocks floor general had scored or assisted on more points (11) than the entire Huskies squad (8), and her defensive effort was a big part of the reason why.

While Brea Beal got the assignment on Louisville’s leading scorer Hailey Van Lith in the Final Four, Henderson was tasked with guarding Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers in the final. According to Staley and her point guard, they trusted Henderson’s speed to give Bueckers’ difficulty, and that was true all night.

South Carolina had scouted the Huskies to a tee, knowing all of their pet sets and how they wanted to get Bueckers the ball. The 2021 national player of the year still had moments of individual brilliance, but they weren’t singularly enough to carry Connecticut. When the Huskies tried to feed Bueckers within the flow of the offense, Henderson was there: denying handoffs, fighting over screens, meeting Bueckers on cuts, and generally staying so attached to the UConn sophomore that she had no space to go up to score.

“I knew I had a task on my hands. I knew I had to come out offensively as well as defensively, and I knew I was gonna get tired but I had to keep fighting through,” Henderson said postgame. “Defensively, I just knew I had to use my speed and just stay with (Paige) cuz I know she likes to shoot. And I know a lot of the sets they’re looking for her, too, so I just had to be ready.”

Staley noted that the team’s backup plan was to put someone bigger on Bueckers, but Henderson was too good to need a plan B. Bueckers didn’t score her first basket until the second quarter and added only two assists to her 14 points.

And Henderson’s defense, which had to result in some tired legs, didn’t affect her ability to make plays offensively at critical moments for the Gamecocks. She opened the scoring in the second quarter, hitting two straight triples to stretch the team’s advantage to 18.

“Henny scoring the ball as well as she did and hitting outside shots, I mean it opened up the game for us,” Aliyah Boston said. “They knew that they had to find her quickly or else she’s gonna let another one fly and hit it.”

When Connecticut whittled the lead down to seven, the closest it would get during that period, Henderson got the ball off the inbounds and drove the length of the court to get a lay-up and end the run, all while Staley was unsuccessfully trying to call timeout.

South Carolina faced another gut-check moment in the third quarter when the Huskies cut yet another double-digit lead down to six. This time, Henderson forced a turnover from Bueckers when she and Kamilla Cardoso stoned a backdoor cut. On the ensuing possession, Henderson had another acrobatic finish in transition, putting the Gamecocks back up by a more comfortable margin of nine.

Time and again, Henderson was the player the Gamecocks turned to. She took the reins when her team needed a settling presence, as veterans do. This is what Henderson envisioned when she chose to stay in South Carolina, the type of impact she believed she could have, even if her time to shine hadn’t yet come.

“Destanni Henderson is the epitome of trusting the process,” Staley said. “Her mom, epitome of trusting the process. She never wavered, even when Henny had an out to leave after her freshman year. She had an out, had a terrible experience. But I did tell them during the season, I said, if you just hang in there with me, the next three years of your career won’t be like this. You will really enjoy it. I was glad that I had that conversation with them, and it ended up this way.”

“I’m so proud of Henny,” Boston said. “She’s our leader. She keeps us level-headed, every time. She controls the pace of the game. She’s a great defender. And honestly without her, I mean this team would be totally different. I’m just so happy to have her.”

Instead of Boston having to imagine a team without Henderson, the two worked together to put away UConn. Boston’s backline defense meant Henderson could be aggressive on Bueckers on the perimeter. When Boston cleaned up possessions with her 11 defensive rebounds, Henderson was her outlet in transition. The two combined for the final dagger in the Huskies’ coffin Sunday when Boston blocked Caroline Ducharme at the top of the key and got the ball to Henderson for the fast-break layup. Connecticut never got within single digits again for the final eight minutes.

Henderson hasn’t officially declared for the WNBA draft (though her and Staley’s comments suggest that this tournament was her swan song) and could exercise an extra year of eligibility to stay in school for a fifth season. But if she does leave now, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect ending to her college career. She scored a career-high in the national title game, the first player since at least 2000 to set a career-best in the final. And she’ll leave South Carolina as a champion, which was the goal all along.

“I feel like it was a journey that led me to this moment,” Henderson said. “I feel like she just — again, it was easy to trust (Dawn). It was easy to trust the process. I had to believe and had to buy into my role, and I feel like it was really worth it.”

In her walk-off interview after the buzzer sounded, Henderson gave one last plug for her clothing line, hoping to capitalize on the momentum of one of the best performances any player gave in this tournament. A few years ago, this ending for Henderson may have seemed unlikely, but as she reminded everyone in that moment: Hennything’s possible.