Arguably, the most anticipated non-conference rivalry resumes on Sunday afternoon in Columbia, SC. Geno Auriemma, his 1,200 wins and No. 11 UConn (20-4) meet Dawn Staley, No. 1 South Carolina (22-0) and their undefeated record at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN).
It will be the 14th meeting between the two programs, although the first game, a UConn win in Dec. 2007, came before Staley took over South Carolina. Even after Staley’s arrival, Auriemma and the Huskies got the best of the Gamecocks, winning the first eight games in the series.
Of late, South Carolina has taken control of the rivalry, winning four of the last five meetings and three in row. UConn’s only recent win was in Feb. 2021, when then-freshman Paige Bueckers was masterful, scoring 31 points to lead the Huskies to a four-point overtime win in Storrs. South Carolina, of course, defeated UConn in the 2022 national championship game. Last season, Aliyah Boston, with a season-high 26 points and 11 rebounds, powered the Gamecocks to a four-point road win.
A South Carolina-UConn game full of fresher faces
Sunday’s affair, however, primarily will involve players who have not featured prominently in recent matchups. Yes, Bueckers will be expected to lead the Huskies, alongside seniors Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl. Last year, Edwards nearly matched Boston, scoring 25 points. Outside of that trio, it will be new faces for UConn, headlined by freshman guards KK Arnold and Ashlynn Shade, both of whom have been elevated into starting, high-minute roles for the injury-ravaged Huskies.
The same is true for South Carolina, particularly due to the absence of senior center Kamilla Cardoso. Cardoso currently is with the Brazilian national team, representing her home country at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belém, Brazil. Last season, Cardoso gave the Gamecocks a double-double off the bench, with 17 points and 11 boards in 22 minutes. Sophomore guard Raven Johnson also was a key contributor in last year’s contest, with 14 points and seven assists in 36 minutes. Otherwise, the only current Gamecock who saw time was junior guard Bree Hall in a scant four minutes.
Expect Hall’s importance to the action to exponentially increase on Sunday afternoon. Now equipped with a deadly 3-point shot to go along with her ever-steady defense, Hall is a good bet to make momentum-swinging plays on Sunday. What other players from both sides—whether those well-versed in this rivalry or new to the matchup—could prove pivotal?
Who steps up for the Gamecocks, Huskies?
South Carolina has number of options. Johnson has scaled up this season, supplementing her defense and playmaking with improved shooting. Senior point guard Te-Hina Paopao appears to possess a clutch gene. Sophomore forward Chloe Kitts will fly around in a fashion that frustrates the Huskies. The collective effort of the Gamecocks’ depth could push them over the top.
While Auriemma and the UConn faithful might bemoan the injuries that have thinned the Huskies’ rotation, Staley has done of superior job of cultivating and empowering a deep roster of capable contributors. It took an accumulation of injuries for Auriemma to begin to entrust Arnold, Shade and, to a lesser extent, reserve freshman guard Qadence Samuels. In recent seasons, despite always welcoming a top-ranked recruiting class to Storrs, Auriemma has relied on rotations that have seemed tighter than necessary. Entering this season with a largely inexperienced roster, Staley, in contrast, has not clung too tightly to a trusted group, instead allowing her talented, younger players to find their footing.
The exemplary example? Reigning SEC Freshman of the Week MiLaysia Fulwiley. While the guard has unleashed her some eye-popping highlights, she’s also had her share of freshman missteps. But, would be anyone be surprised if she fearlessly fires a deep 3, draining the dagger that defeats UConn for a fourth-straight time?
Another player ready to rise to the occasion for South Carolina? Ashlyn Watkins. Without Cardoso, expect the sophomore forward to again be elevated into the starting lineup and see a significant uptick in minutes, especially with freshman forward Sahnya Jah suspended indefinitely due to conduct deemed detrimental to team. In addition to her glass cleaning and shot swatting, she’s shown off an expanding offensive game. On Sunday, she’ll also be responsible for slowing Edwards.
Ashlyn Watkins Highlights vs Auburn 2.1.2024 pic.twitter.com/81LxI195AZ— Women’s Hoops Masterclass (@HoopMasterclass) February 2, 2024
If the Huskies are to hand the Gamecocks their first loss of the season, it will probably be because of the player who, when at her best, cannot be slowed: Paige Bueckers. Speaking to the media after a recent South Carolina practice, Staley offered high praise for Bueckers.
"There's no fat to Paige's game... Everything that she does has a purpose... if you have some slippage defensively, she's gonna make you pay."— Women’s Hoops Network (@WomensHoops_USA) February 9, 2024
Dawn Staley talks Paige Bueckers ahead of UConn game. pic.twitter.com/lsKBZskoSk
If, despite the preparedness of the Gamecocks’ defense, Bueckers is able to generate efficient offense for herself and her teammates, the Huskies can secure the biggest win—by any team—of the 2023-24 season, toppling an undefeated South Carolina on their home court. Yet, if South Carolina’s disciplined D is dialed in, creating turnovers that cascade into a flood of transition buckets, the Gamecocks should be able to pull away, earning a 23rd-straight win and further cementing themselves as the best squad in women’s college basketball.
No. 11 UConn Huskies (20-4) vs. No. 1 South Carolina (22-0)
When: Sunday, Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC
How to watch: ESPN