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UConn's win over South Carolina a big step forward

South Carolina had Katie Lou Samuelson and the Huskies on their heels. But UConn made up for the slow start, and then some, with a 97-79 victory against the Gamecocks. Samuelson finished with 29 points. Matt Eisenberg/espnW

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Another day, another win for Connecticut at home. The fourth-ranked Huskies downed No. 11 South Carolina 97-79 on Monday for their 90th consecutive home victory. This one, however, didn't come as easily as the final score might indicate.

UConn has struggled against quality competition as of late. It looked like the cap came off the rim against East Carolina and Temple last week, but it's easier to hit those shots against those teams than, say, a South Carolina squad with something to prove.

At practice Friday, UConn drilled set plays for kickouts to the 3-point line. The Huskies executed perfectly five consecutive times, but the shot repeatedly clanged the rim with the unmistakable tinge of a miss. Each time the ball left the hands of one of the UConn starters, the players on the bench collectively prepared for it to sink through the bottom of the net, only to be disappointed. Then Megan Walker nailed one from the corner. Cheers broke out on the court like a sigh of relief. Finally.

UConn found itself in a similar situation Monday night against South Carolina. After trailing by nine points in the first quarter, UConn climbed out of the hole before taking a 28-27 lead on a Crystal Dangerfield 3-pointer from the wing. The Huskies led 44-43 at the half.

UConn outscored South Carolina 29-12 in the third quarter, effectively putting the death knell in South Carolina's hopes for an upset in traditional Huskies fashion. UConn worked through its problems and forced the Gamecocks into mistakes while waiting for the rim to finally widen. It was messy for a while, but the Huskies are getting through it. Putting everything together just hasn't been this challenging for quite some time.

"We've had quarters where we've played really well, but given the quality of the team we were playing against, I'd say that was pretty good," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "We did a lot of great things that quarter, on offense and defense. It pretty much ended the game right there."

Seniors Napheesa Collier (31 points) and Katie Lou Samuelson (29) led the way for UConn (22-2). Freshman guard Christyn Williams contributed 19 points. Collier, who notched her 13th double-double of the season, became the first Husky in 20 seasons to have at least 30 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a game.

"There can't be anywhere a player that is playing better and does more for her team than Napheesa Collier does," Auriemma said. "There's something about her that's rare. You just don't see it."

The Gamecocks put up a heck of a fight, especially in the first half. South Carolina made 10 of its first 11 field goals, but then shot just 8-for-25 to finish the first half. Junior guard Tyasha Harris was unstoppable in the first half, getting any shot she wanted en route to 11 points. She didn't score another point, however, as South Carolina's offense stalled in the second half. Bianca Cuevas-Moore led the way for South Carolina with 25 points, and Te'a Cooper chipped in 20 despite sitting much of the first half on the bench.

"They just come at you in waves," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "I thought we handled that well in the first half. In the second half, we came up short."

As UConn clawed its way back from its first-quarter deficit, and pulled away in the third, the Huskies buckled down on defense and made up for shots not falling with hustle plays. South Carolina (17-6) committed 11 turnovers -- six in the second half -- and shot just 40 percent in the final two frames. And when the shots finally did start falling for UConn, it was like the Huskies' bench (and Huskies faithful in the stands) collectively let out a sigh of relief each time the ball fell through the net.

Finally.

"We played aggressively and confidently the whole game, even when we were down by [10]," Collier said. "That's something you don't really learn from a win, how to stay composed when you're losing. I think that's something we did take in from our past experiences."