South Carolina coach Dawn Staley never attempted to hide the emotion when her No. 1 Gamecocks dismantled fifth-ranked UConn 70-52 last season.
In front of an electric crowd of 18,000 fans at Colonial Life Arena on Feb. 10, 2020, that win cemented South Carolina's status as the top team in the country, demonstrating that Staley's program was a national powerhouse here to stay and now within reach of a second national title in four seasons. Plus, she finally beat UConn for the first time in eight tries.
"I felt relieved we got it done," she said at the time, "and it made so many other people happy."
With last year's win under its belt, some of that pressure has dissipated on South Carolina's end going into Monday's rematch with UConn (6 p.m., FS1). But the significance of another win over the No. 3 Huskies is not lost on Staley as she preps her No. 2 Gamecocks to make a deep run come March.
"It is less pressure, but more hunger," Staley said. "To beat somebody at home is a little easier than beating them on the road. And I just hope we're able to check that off the list and continue what UConn used to do to us: Link those wins together and don't look back."
For the second time in two seasons, UConn and South Carolina will meet in a top-five showdown. But much has changed since last year's game. Gone to the WNBA are South Carolina's leaders, Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. So are UConn's point guard, Crystal Dangerfield, who was the WNBA 's Rookie of the Year with the Lynx last season, and top scorer Megan Walker.
“They've got Paige. She's able to do anything she wants out there on the floor. Paige is a generational player in her own right.”
Both teams are still trying to find themselves, Staley admits. South Carolina started the season ranked No. 1 but suffered an early loss to NC State. Since then, the Gamecocks (15-1) have rattled off 12 straight wins, five over ranked opponents, and climbed back up to No. 2 even as Staley insists they've yet to put it all together.
From what Staley has seen, the 13-1 Huskies are different, too. They're are better. And freshman phenom point guard Paige Bueckers has a lot to do with that.
"This is nothing against Crystal. They've probably upgraded in Paige," said Staley, a point guard herself in her playing career. "She does so many things with the ball. They're better this year than they were last year.
"They've got a lot more depth. They've got Paige. She's able to do anything she wants out there on the floor. Paige is a generational player in her own right."
The Gamecocks will be tasked with slowing down Bueckers, coming off a four-game stretch where she's shooting 63 percent from the floor and 76 percent on 3s. She's dropped 30 points in back-to-back games, and before that scored 27 and 22 against a pair of ranked opponents.
"She's efficient in everything she does," Staley said. "Her IQ is off the charts. She plays at her own pace. She's incredibly efficient. She makes the right basketball plays. That is what makes her special. I'm hoping that somebody is able to make her into something that she hasn't been all season, which is not very efficient. That's a hard feat. We've got to make her take tough shots and make her work for 40 minutes on both sides of the ball."
Staley has a star of her own in 6-foot-5 sophomore center and preseason All-America Aliyah Boston, last year's national freshman of the year and Lisa Leslie Award winner as the nation's top center. Against the Huskies last season, she finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and three steals.
"Aliyah has improved so much from senior year in high school to where she is today," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Friday. "Her ball handling, her shooting, her decision-making with the ball, defensively. She's playing at a real, real high level, and I don't see anybody that has played that position better than she has since the season started."
Whatever home-court advantage the Huskies usually have in Storrs or the XL Center, and the big-game environment that made last season's matchup so thrilling, will be largely absent on Monday. Gampel Pavilion has only allowed friends and family of the program to games this season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staley knows what it's like to walk into Gampel Pavilion for the first time, as her young team will do Monday. To see the 11 national championship banners, the Huskies of Honor display, the accomplishments of a slew of current WNBA stars.
"That's why shootaround is important," Staley said. "You've got to get in there, you've got to feel that space, you've got to start looking around and then during the game time, you've already seen it so you can focus in on the task at hand."
Staley feels that this year's team isn't like the three others she's brought to Connecticut since 2015. "I don't think they really look into the long tradition of UConn winning," she said, "having undefeated season after undefeated season. They just want to win."
Plus, as last year's matchup established, South Carolina isn't the same program it used to be. It's better.
"In years past, playing a UConn team, we've had to play perfectly to win. I don't think we're in that place," Staley said. "We're armed with some players that can go toe-to-toe. The talent is there. It's all about what team is going to be able to execute their game plan."
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