COLUMBIA, S.C. -- They've been waiting a long time for this here. It was the last "big" thing the South Carolina women's basketball program had yet to do. One final hurdle in coach Dawn Staley's 12-season rise to national prominence. And before a passionately loud full house on Monday, the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks did it.
Actually, they didn't just beat UConn for the first time, they dominated the Huskies 70-52, to the great delight of 18,000 fans at Colonial Life Arena.
"I'm happy for them -- they cheered loud, they were proud, they've wanted this for us in the same breath that we wanted it for us," Staley said. "We felt that in a genuine way.
"I'm just relieved. Not because there was a whole lot of pressure, but when you think about the former players and the current players, and what it would look like if we lost the game ... I didn't want [the players] to feel that. I didn't want 18,000 people to feel that."
Instead, it was the Huskies who left feeling blue. UConn has lost three games by at least 15 points in a single season for the first time since 1992-93, falling to Baylor by 16 on Jan. 9 and to Oregon by 18 on Feb. 3. By this point, it has been pretty well established that by the lofty standards of the 11-time NCAA champions, this season's Huskies aren't at their typical level.
Through Monday's games, ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme put UConn as a No. 2 seed and at No. 6 overall on the S-curve, with little chance to return to the top line since the Huskies' only remaining games are in the American Athletic Conference, which ranks ninth in conference RPI.
This definitely knocks UConn off the #1 line and probably for good. Without anyone of note left to play the Huskies would have to rely heavily on other teams losing to get back there. SC, Baylor, Oregon, and NC State are your #1 seeds now. The Wolfpack just slightly over Maryland— Charlie Creme (@CharlieCreme) February 11, 2020
UConn coach Geno Auriemma got a bit testy Monday when asked about having fallen to the top three teams in this week's AP Top 25 rankings, all by double digits.
"I have to say, we're allowed to lose a god damn game once in a while where the other team plays better than us. So how 'bout you write that somewhere," Auriemma said. "South Carolina played way better than Connecticut. That's allowed to happen once in a while. And it's not like, 'What did you guys do wrong?' "
That said, Auriemma acknowledged that at times when the Huskies looked like they might make a run Monday, they just didn't. Credit the Gamecocks' defense for a lot of that -- they led 11-2 after the opening period, the lowest-scoring quarter for the Huskies since women's basketball went to quarters in the 2015-16 season -- but the UConn players also became tentative.
That irritates Auriemma, although it is understandable: With starting guards Christyn Williams and Anna Makurat going a combined 1-of-16 from the field, they became hesitant to shoot. Crystal Dangerfield was the only one who played fearlessly, but she's also the senior in the bunch. She finished with a game-high 28 points.
"We're not able to win these kinds of games with one person playing great," Auriemma said.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks further cemented their hold on a No. 1 seed that would have them in the Greenville Regional, just over an hour's drive from their campus. The SEC tournament will be there, too, meaning the Gamecocks could advance to the Final Four without leaving the state of South Carolina; the Final Four is in New Orleans.
Checking this victory off the list mattered to Staley, whose program won the 2017 NCAA championship and has become the standard-bearer of the SEC but still was winless against UConn. Overall, the Huskies were 8-0 against South Carolina, with seven of those losses on Staley's slate. The closest she'd come before Monday was a 66-55 loss in 2017. The average margin of defeat in those seven games: 21.3 points.
In other words, this was cathartic for both the Gamecocks and their fans, as they put the Huskies on the other end of things -- with South Carolina in control from the start, coming up with key rebounds and making the Huskies look frazzled at times.
Was this a must-win for South Carolina? No. But the Gamecocks needed it from an emotional standpoint, especially seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. With so much rightly made of the Gamecocks' fabulous freshmen -- led by Aliyah Boston, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds Monday -- Harris and Herbert Harrigan still deserve a huge amount of credit for how this team has progressed ahead of schedule, in Staley's mind.
Harris has been the captain of this ship, and she led the way calmly and confidently Monday, finishing with team highs of 19 points and 11 assists, with no turnovers. Herbert Harrigan had 10 points and seven rebounds, while freshman Zia Cooke had 15 points.
Staley thinks Harris is being overlooked by not being listed as a first-rounder in various WNBA mock drafts. But Harris now can say something previous Gamecocks players -- even the best player in program history, A'ja Wilson -- couldn't say: "I've defeated UConn."
"It helps our confidence, letting the world know that we're one of the contenders for the Final Four," said Harris, who was a freshman on South Carolina's national championship team. "It feels great, just because I see people who started before us who haven't beaten UConn, and to see how happy they are, that gives me a warm feeling in my heart."
Staley has praised this year's team as being mature and disciplined, despite starting three freshmen. If turnovers are one of the measures of discipline, South Carolina showed that with only seven to UConn's 15. And they didn't put the Huskies on the foul line much: UConn was 4-of-6 in free throws.
South Carolina went to the stripe only eight times, making four, but the Gamecocks' ability to hit eight 3-pointers was an important part of the victory. That's the kind of team South Carolina is now, Auriemma said: one that can beat foes in several different ways.
That has long been how UConn is described, but the Huskies are not there now -- at least against the best teams in the country. There's still more than month until the NCAA tournament, so there's time for the Huskies to get there. Auriemma actually sounded positive in that regard; UConn has advanced to the Final Four each of the past 12 seasons.
"We got a lot better since last Monday," he said, referring to the loss to Oregon. "So I hope and imagine we'll be a lot better next Monday than we are today. That's the goal: keep getting better and better until the NCAA tournament comes, and then you take your chances.
"Chances are you won't have to play the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in a row in the NCAA tournament. If you are, that means you're playing in the last weekend, or close to it."
South Carolina is 23-1, with the only loss coming to Indiana, 71-57, on Thanksgiving in the Virgin Islands. Boston was plagued by foul trouble that day back in her hometown of St. Thomas, and that was a key learning experience very early in her career. She and her fellow rookie starters, Cooke and Brea Beal, all looked Monday like none of this is very daunting for them. Not because they are overconfident in any way, but because they believe in themselves and the team.
The Gamecocks still have two ranked teams among their SEC regular-season opponents: at Kentucky on Feb. 23 and at home against Texas A&M on March 1. Asked if she thinks the Gamecocks are the best team in the country, Harris answered with a senior's wisdom and discretion: "I feel like we're up there."
There really wasn't much doubt about that before Monday's game. After it, there was none.