Women's NCAA championship game 2022: South Carolina guards ready to help deliver national title

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brea Beal doesn't listen to music before games. She doesn't need the pump-up, preferring to stay as even-keel as possible. Zia Cooke is known for her quick sense of humor. And Destanni Henderson has learned to be the on-court general, the one who puts things in order.

They are the starting guards for South Carolina's women's basketball team. And if the Gamecocks are to win the program's second NCAA championship, consensus national player of the year Aliyah Boston won't be the only one who will lead them there. South Carolina's backcourt will be just as crucial against UConn in Sunday's national championship game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

All three guards arrived in Columbia with high expectations. Henderson, a senior, was the No. 6 overall prospect in the 2018 ESPN HoopGurlz rankings. In South Carolina's 2019 recruiting class, juniors Cooke was No. 4 and Beal No. 11.

"They have three different personalities that just fit," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "The fact that they've logged a lot of minutes together, they play like in shorthand. You don't have to say much. They can give each other looks, and they know exactly what they mean out there on the floor."

Of the guards' relationship, Beal said, "I think the biggest thing is just being able to balance and just have fun and laugh and joke. That's a game-changer: getting to know someone, like heart-to-heart. So when you're on the court, it's like a sister relationship, you just trust one another."

That's true, Staley said, even though the three don't hang out all the time off the court.

"I think they've got different cliques, but the chemistry that they've been able to develop on the court developed quite nicely," said Staley, who is trying to add a second NCAA title to a 2017 championship. "And they have a mutual respect for what they do and what they mean to our team."

Staley as a point guard at Virginia in the 1990s also frequently played in a three-guard backcourt with current Rhode Island coach Tammi Reiss and Dena Evans, going to three Final Fours. As a coach, Staley tends to have a special relationship -- which can include a lot of criticism -- with her point guards.

"I've always looked at the game differently than a shooting guard or a post player," Staley said. "I've always been able to see the big picture, and I've carried that. It doesn't matter if it's basketball or if it's just life. I'm a point guard, so we're trained to see it all. We're trained to see the big picture."

Henderson had to do that freshman year, when it came to her playing time. Coming off the bench behind Tyasha Harris in her first two seasons, Henderson started nine of 64 games in that stretch. But the past two years, Henderson has started every game she has played. In 2017, Harris helped lead South Carolina to the NCAA title as a freshman point guard; Henderson is trying to do that as a senior.

She is averaging 11.1 points and a team-best 3.9 assists, and also leads South Carolina with 52 3-pointers. She has also excelled in her on-court connection with Cooke (10.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG) and Beal (5.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG).

"I've been able to know what they're good at, and just be that point guard that puts them in the position to be their best selves," Henderson said. "I had to get experience just to be able to know how to give certain information. Just to know who they are as a person."

At 5-foot-7, Henderson is very quick with and without the ball, and Staley knows she can rely on her.

"We started recruiting Destanni Henderson not as a toddler, but she was that small," Staley said. "She told us very early on in the process that she was coming and stayed committed to us throughout a freshman year that you want to forget ... because she didn't have a really strong experience for one reason or another.

"She's the ultimate teammate. She's one that gives us what we need at any given time."

On Friday, Beal, Cooke and Henderson combined for 33 points and shot 48% from the field in South Carolina's 72-59 win over Louisville. Heading into the Final Four, the trio had shot a combined 29% from the field in the NCAA tournament. And Beal's smothering defense helped force Louisville star Hailey Van Lith into 4-for-11 shooting.

"She makes everybody's lives hard. And we love that," Boston said. "Off the court, sometimes she'll hit you with some great sarcasm."

That can even slip out on-court, such as when opponents are so frustrated by Beal's blanket coverage that they bark at her. Beal's responses might get a little fiery in return.

"Brea is funny because she doesn't try to be funny," Cooke said. "Brea is super calm, cool and laid-back. But if you get her out of who she is, and make her give you that back, it's kind of funny."

Look for Cooke as the one who's trying to be funny.

"Zia's a comedian," Boston said. "The mood's always light around her. On the court, we can depend on her to knock down a shot, to be deliberate and attack the basket."

In the meeting with UConn in the Bahamas in November, a 73-57 Gamecocks victory, South Carolina's starting guard trio combined for 38 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and eight steals.

UConn's Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook combined for 43 points, seven rebounds, 13 assists and two steals. With the guards largely playing to a draw, it allowed Boston's dominance -- 22 points, 15 rebounds -- to make the difference.

The 6-5 Boston appreciates the guard play around her.

"Henny brings the energy," Boston said. "On the court, she has different bursts of speed. She controls the game, controls the tempo.

"Together on the court [with Beal and Cook], they're a deadly combination. They work really well together, and they're really understanding where each other needs to be and what needs to happen."