South Carolina has a tall order in UConn

Albany – UConn and South Carolina meet for the seventh time on Monday, and the first time in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies have never lost to the Gamecocks. In February, UConn won 83-58 in Columbia. That makes the National Champion the underdog in a tournament game for the first time in a very long while.

The teams present contrasting styles, with South Carolina relying heavily on their advantage in the paint, and UConn relying on disruptive defense and an offense of outstanding ball movement followed whoever-is-open’s shot.

The Gamecock’s A’ja Wilson, the front-runner for player of the year, is a 6-5 agile, athletic scoring and rebounding machine, who has been the stalwart for her team for years. This season she has averaged 22.5 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 54 percent from the field. Her front court mate is junior Alexis Jennings, 6-2 and also a supreme athlete, who scored 20 in Saturday’s victory over Buffalo.

In the February game, the Huskies held these two to 19 points on 6-25 from the field, though Wilson also scored six free throws.

“I think we just really tried to play team defense,” Napheesa Collier said. “Gabby [Williams] actually guarded her for a lot of the game.”

“But like I said, really just trying to limit their post touches and limit how many shots they get, like second chance shots and their rebounds and things like that.”

No one expects UConn to win by 25 Monday, but the smaller version of the Huskes have shown that its defense is capable of disrupting the Gamecocks’ interior strength by forcing them to take shots from places where they are not comfortable. UConn’s coordinated, athletic and harassing defense cuts off passing lanes as well as any team in the country, and they have a history of controlling the opponent’s best scorer.

The South Carolina bigs will have to show that they can make the uncomfortable shot if they are to have a chance of outscoring a Husky team that spreads the court on offense and scores from all five positions.

Even if the Gamecock posts can work around the UConn defense, they cannot win unless they can clean up their recent tendency to turn the ball over. Asked whether the team needed to be more “consistent” with their success in winning the SEC Tournament, coach Dawn Staley was direct.

“We actually are very consistent with the conference tournament in that we turn the ball over a great deal,” she said. “What makes you kinda raise your eyebrows is that they’re really turnovers that we can control.”

“It’s not like we were being pressured all game long. They [Buffalo, which benefitted from 26 South Carolina turnovers] were sitting back in a sagging match-up zone. And we just played too fast. We need to just slow down, keep our composure, and find the hands that the ball should go in.”

“Sometimes we get overzealous and we try to force things. Going a little bit quicker than we want to go. Because we see where there are lanes to exploit. So hopefully we’ll slow down a little bit and take care of the ball. Because if we don’t we’re going to get ran out of the gym.”

In the tournament, South Carolina turned the ball over 19 times in the first round, just 10 against Virginia in the second, and 26 times on Saturday.

UConn runs the best fast break in the country, and Staley is correct that teams can’t turn the ball over against them – particularly at the top of the key. Although both Gamecock starting guards have championship rings, neither had a major role in that victory.

Sophomore point guard Tyasha Harris has had problems protecting the ball all season, with 90 turnovers (she does have 218 assists). Backcourt partner Doniyah Cliney has 77 turnovers (to just 80 assists). And those numbers were not against UConn’s perimeter defense featuring Williams and Kia Nurse.

As for the Huskies, they are favored for many reasons. They are the only undefeated team in the game. They have beaten ranked teams eleven times this year, all by double digits. They have four players with over 1500 career points, and another just 42 shy of the mark. They lead the nation in scoring at 89.3 points per game. They are fourth in scoring defense, and first among tournament teams. They have two three point shooters in the top five in percentage, and rank fifth as a team from beyond the arc.

Although their shooting percentage has been down in the last two games, they usually rise to the big games. That said, the sub-50-percent shooting (they were .532 on the year) could be a factor in a close game. Even more troubling is six of 12 missed free throws on Saturday.

“It still comes down to, you know, you have to score,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “[O]ur defense has been really, really good . . . and it’s just a matter of, can you make enough shots to win the game that night?”

“As anybody who has played in these games will tell you, it’s not easy to make shots at this time of the year. Every kid, . . . if you’re not careful, starts to think, you know this isn’t January or February where if I go 0-for-10, I go to practice tomorrow and work on my shot. You go 0-for-10 tomorrow, you work on your shot the next five months.”

What might make a difference in this game? First, foul trouble for either team, as both coaches rely on six players in tough games. Second, is whether either UConn’s Azura Stevens or South Carolina’s Kiki Herbert Harrington can be a major factor for their team. Neither had much effect in February. Since then, 6-6 Stevens has become a game-changer off the bench, adding energy, scoring and rebounding. In the last ten games, Stevens has averaged team-highs of 16.6 points and 8.3 rebounds in under 20 minutes of play. She has improved on defense with each game, and has 26 blocks in those ten games.

Herbert Harrington has been less consistent, but adds an additional post presence at 6-2. Her ability to handle the ball and pull defenders to the perimeter, where she has a reliable 15-footer,  gives Wilson and Jennings more room to maneuver in the paint. She scored 13 in South Carolina’s SEC final victory over then-undefeated Mississippi State on March 4. On Saturday, she had six points, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal.

The Huskies are a better team than they were last tournament, with the flourishing of point guard Crystal Dangerfield. The Gamecocks are not, having lost last year’s senior backcourt, including WNBA rookie of the year Allisha Gray, to graduation.

Yet there is always a chance. UConn faded under the pressure of a closer-than-expected game in last year’s national semifinal, and they have not forgotten it. In a refreshing departure from the usual interview, Williams acknowledged the Huskies had more pressure on them than did the reigning National Champion.

“Obviously there’s pressure both ways but for us, if we come short of it, it’s a disappointing season,” Wilson said. “I think that just goes with the 30 years of history that this program has that we’ve built up; that we’ve set such high expectations every single year.”

Auriemma agreed.

“She just told the truth. . . . There’s no games you ever play at Connecticut where the pressure is not on you,” he said. “To me, those teams that sit up here and those players that sit up here and go, there’s no pressure on us, we have nothing to lose. Yeah, you do, you’re going to lose the game tomorrow, if you talk like that.”

“And most really good coaches and really good players, they don’t try to avoid the pressure. They don’t pretend it’s not there. It’s there. And it’s especially there at Connecticut. It’s there the day you sign your letter of intent. It’s there the day you show up on campus. It’s there every day in practice, and every game you play.”

“That’s what our kids live with every day, and the interesting part about it is they manage to be great in that environment.”

They do indeed. If the Huskies play their A game (or even their B+ game), they win. South Carolina will have to clean up the turnovers and completely dominate the paint to reach the Final Four.

The teams face off at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.