Offensive onslaught powers UConn to 19th Final Four

Crystal Dangerfield drives on Bianca Jackson. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Crystal Dangerfield drives on Bianca Jackson. Photo by Stephen Slade.

Albany – UConn delivered an overwhelming 94-65 offensive drubbing to reigning National Champion South Carolina on Monday, launching them into their 11th straight Final Four and 19th overall – both records.

The Huskies scored on their first four possessions, setting an offensive tone that never let up. They put the game away in the first period from beyond the arc, hitting five of six three-pointers in the first period and nine of 10 in the first half. Crystal Dangerfield led the barrage, as they sprinted out to an insurmountable 30-12 lead after 10 minutes that grew to 54-33 at the half.

Dangerfield hit five threes, a ten-foot pull up jumper and two free throws in the half, to lead all scorers with 19 points.

The three-point fusillade was phenomenal shooting, but it was created by especially crisp ball movement that left the shooters wide open on most of them. (The exception was a four-point play by Katie Lou Samuelson in the first period that extended UConn’s lead to 23-8).

In a significant understatement, South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson conceded that “one of our kind of keys was just defend the three-point line, and we had a little trouble doing that.”

“[Dangerfield] made wide-open shots,” coach Dawn Staley said. “They were practice shots, with her feet set and no one really around her. . . .Certainly we didn’t do a good job of staying close to her. We kind of dug ourselves in the hole by helping off too much.”

Teams that make the Elite Eight all have players who demand double teams, and every coach needs to make choices about who will be left open. South Carolina chose to play off Dangerfield as UConn’s lowest scoring starter, apparently missing the stat that she is .588 from outside in the 2018 post-season, by far the best on the team.

The Husky offense was so overwhelming that they won by a large margin on a night when South Carolina shot 50 percent, the first time a team has done that to UConn in at least the last five years.

Many years ago in his more confrontational youth, Geno Auriemma said of Rutgers, “It’s not a rivalry until they beat you a few times.” Rutgers never did it. His respect for Staley and South Carolina are such that he would never repeat that about them, but UConn is now 7-0 against South Carolina.

Fair or not, until Staley’s team defeats the Huskies, they will not be seen as a great team. The proof is in the coverage and aftermath of last year’s tournament, in which Mississippi State’s semifinal defeat of UConn was the story, even though the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina two days later and the Gamecocks are still the National Champions.

In the battle of the paint it was A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings – South Carolina’s dynamic pair – against the defense of Gabby Williams and pretty much everyone else on UConn’s team. No one can guard Wilson one-on-one, and the Huskies’ plan was to double her on every possession, forcing the guards to make plays. Wilson is six inches taller, but Williams is quicker, and the one of the best defenders in America.

When the teams met in February, Williams won the battle, forcing Wilson to miss a majority of her attempts, rushing many. In this game, however, Wilson as a senior, has been playing perhaps the best basketball of her career, and it showed in the game. Wilson finished her college career with 27 points on 11-18 shooting.

Jennings was also effective inside, scoring 15 points on 7-10 shooting, but they got almost no support from the rest of the team on either end of the floor. The Gamecocks scored just eight points more in the paint than UConn, though the Huskies did it mostly on cuts to the hoop for which South Carolina had no answer. And in a game in which both teams shot so well that rebounds were rare, the Huskies surpassed the Gamecocks by two.

UConn began the game in classic fashion, spreading the floor and hitting from all five positions. By the first media timeout, they led 17-9. Two Dangerfield free throws and an four-point play by Katie Lou Samuelson extended the lead to 23-8 with 2:33 left in the first period.

South Carolina elected to slow the pace, running the clock to 15-20 seconds before initiating their half-court offense. The idea of the strategy is to limit possessions, and keep the score low, meaning close. It did not work. The young Gamecock guards seemed rushed, and turned the ball over 6 times in the first six minutes.

It also did not work because UConn did not need many possessions to take a commanding 30-12 lead. They connected on 9-14 attempts, including those five threes in the first period.

South Carolina did not get to this game, however, by being easily cowed. They came out fired up in the second quarter, feeding Wilson in the post, and she began to score regularly. They aggressively attacked the paint and the boards, scoring or forcing the Huskies to foul. Their defense was also energized, at least temporarily, forcing two live-ball UConn turnovers, which they converted for scores.

The Huskies countered by continuing to hit from outside, even as they had trouble penetrating the lane. They hit all four three attempts in the quarter.

The Gamecocks were 9-15 in the second quarter (.600). Against UConn’s defense, that level of success is unheard of. Unfortunately, they actually fell behind by three more points, because the Huskies responded with 10-14 makes (71.4) in the period.

Wilson and Jennings scored 25 of South Carolina’s 33 points in the first half of the matchup.

When it’s clicking, everything works. UConn scored in the final seconds of the first two  quarters, a Dangerfield three at the buzzer in the first, and an Azura Stevens layup with 2.5 left in the second. No player was in serious foul trouble going into the locker room.

The Gamecocks were not out of the game, despite the deficit. They had proven that they could score at a high percentage against the Husky defense, and they had converted all five of their offensive rebounds.

UConn missed its first two shots of the second half, both threes, and turned the ball over on the next possession. Wilson scored easily on the other end, and South Carolina fans could imagine things turning their way. That hope did not last long. The Huskies re-focused and responded to Wilson’s run by blocking her next shot, and forcing a miss on her next. Collier and Samuelson each blocked Wilson on the next possession. The consensus player of the year just grabbed a third rebound and converted anyway.

But the Gamecocks left UConn shooters open beyond the arc again and again. After two misses to open the second half, the Huskies connected on back-to-back threes to take their largest lead, 68-41 at the media timeout.

UConn continued to pack the paint, bringing a triple-team on Wilson and sometimes including 6-6 Stevens, 6-2 Collier and 6-3 Samuelson. Because she was getting no significant help when she would pass out of the triple-team to her guards, Wilson forced a sequence of shots into the defense, and came up empty more often than not. She was just two 0f six in the third period.

Williams scored eight of her 23 points in the third, as the Huskies extended their lead to 76-47 as the period closed.

The fourth quarter opened with Wilson inexplicably on the bench. Perhaps it was a concession that the game was unwinnable, and Staley wanted next year’s team to gain some tournament experience. Wilson returned to score on two consecutive possessions, but everyone knew she could score on every remaining possession and still lose.

This was UConn at their best. They shot 58 percent, assisted on 25 of 37 baskets, hit 12 of 20 threes, and all eight free throws. The defense limited South Carolina to just eight offensive boards and 15 second-chance points.

Wilson and Jennings had to work to score, but they performed at a high level, shooting 18 of 28, for 45 of the Gamecocks 65 points. The supporting cast simply could not deal with the defensive pressure of the Huskies.

Williams was at her all-around best, as is her norm, especially in the biggest games. Her line tells a story: 23 points, 11-16 shooting, five rebounds, five assists, one turnover, and just one foul, despite guarding Wilson the entire game. The whole story is greater than the stats. Williams is a game-changer at every aspect of basketball. She is the nation’s best defender (recognized as such last year), and probably the best pure athlete in the college game. The Husky offense runs through her, even when the assists are credited to someone else. She supplies at least a few “Wow! How-did-she-do-that?” moments in every game.

She was recognized as the Most Outstanding Player of the Albany Regional. The others on the All-Regional team were Samuelson, Dangerfield, Wilson, and Buffalo’s Cierra Dillard.

Auriemma has been a head coach for 33 years. His team has been in the Final Four 57 percent of that time.

The press has pushed the “redemption” angle to this season, but the players have not seen it that way. They seem genuinely to look at one game at a time.

Auriemma rejected the redemption aspect of this season as well, but did not pretend that the shocking semifinal loss to Mississippi State last year was forgotten.

“Every team starts their season and says that’s [the] goal, to go to the Final Four. So for us, it’s an opportunity to go back to where we felt like we didn’t really give our best effort,” Auriemma said. “We lost to a really good team, but it happened in a way that was really, really disappointing, and I know that we were really anxious to go back and put ourselves in that same situation, and see how much we’ve changed.”

They have changed. Dangerfield, the shooting star of this game, was a bench player who contributed inconsistently last year. Transfer Stevens was ineligible which, as Auriemma said afterwards to the crowd, guarantees nothing. The other teams in this year’s Final Four all have the skill and confidence to defeat the Huskies, unless they can repeat what they did Monday. On this night, they were unbeatable.

They face Notre Dame Friday in the second semifinal of the night, at 9 p.m. ET, for the chance to move on to their 12th title game. If they are to have a chance for “revenge” – as the press will label it if both advance– against Mississippi State, they will have to defeat a Notre Dame team that has come from behind twice in their regional.

Want a rivalry? Notre Dame – Uconn is a rivalry. No team has beaten Auriemma’s Huskies more often than the Irish: eleven victories (to 36 losses), including three in the national semi-final game (2001, 2011, 2012). The Huskies defeated the Irish, 80-71, this past December – the closest margin of victory of the season.