South Carolina Gamecocks go wire to wire against UConn Huskies to win second national title under Dawn Staley

South Carolina Gamecocks go wire to wire against UConn Huskies to win second national title under Dawn Staley

MINNEAPOLIS — One year after a heartbreaking loss in the Final Four to eventual champion Stanford, No. 1 South Carolina found redemption, earning the program’s second national championship with a 64-49 victory over 2-seed UConn on Sunday at Minneapolis’ Target Center .

The Gamecocks, who went 14-0 against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25 this season, became the eighth program to win multiple national titles in NCAA women’s basketball history, joining UConn (11), Tennessee (8), Stanford (3) , Baylor (3), Notre Dame (2), USC (2) and Louisiana Tech (2).

South Carolina (35-2) is also the 12th team to go wire to wire as No. 1 in the AP poll and win it all.

“Our path was divinely ordered,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley told Gamecocks fans as she stood on stage to accept the championship trophy.

Junior forward Aliyah Boston, the national player of the year, recorded her 30th double-double of the season with 11 points and 16 rebounds and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

Staley is also now 2-0 in NCAA national championship games after leading her squad past Mississippi State for the 2017 title. With a piece of the net from her 2017 title in her pocket — the same one from which she’d previously sent segments to other Black women’s coaches across the sport — she became the first Black coach to win multiple Division I basketball national championships .

Staley shrugged off any suggestions that her program has reached “dynasty” status — she maintained that UConn’s 11 titles are still the standard in the sport — but she did proclaim that this team’s season-long domination and defensive prowess makes it her best squad in program history.

The Gamecocks finished the tournament allowing 45.5 points per game, the second-lowest mark by a national champion against its tournament opponents, trailing only UConn in 2010.

After going 11-0 in his previous national championship appearances, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was handed his first loss in the title game.

“I feel like coming into this game, the conversation was about how Coach Auriemma was 11-0 in title games,” said Boston. “But Coach Staley was 1-0 and now she’s 2-0. And I think it just shows the type of program that she’s built.”

The Huskies (30-6), whose 11 titles are tied for the most in Division I basketball, are still in search of their first title since taking home four straight from 2013 through 2016. Their five straight NCAA tournaments without a championship is the longest the program has gone since earning its first title in 1995.

Guard Destanni Henderson became the first player since 2000 to set a career high in scoring in the national championship game, finishing with 26 points in the final game of her collegiate career. She also chipped in four assists, two rebounds and a tough defensive effort against 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers (14 points).

“I really didn’t even know I had a career high, to be honest with you,” Henderson said. “But when people spoke about it and let me know that — it’s just even more of a blessing and just an honor to do it in this moment, a special moment that all of us are going to remember forever.”

Henderson set the tone early, too, as her 3 22 seconds into Sunday’s game gave the Gamecocks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

South Carolina started hot, scoring 13 of the game’s first 15 points and jumping out to a 30-12 advantage early in the second quarter off a Henderson 3. UConn eventually settled in, using a 15-5 run to cut the deficit to as few as seven and then 35-27 entering halftime. Top-ranked 2021 recruit Azzi Fudd played just five minutes in the first half (17 overall) for UConn after dealing with a stomach bug heading into the game.

South Carolina got going early once more after the break, pulling back ahead by 16 midway through the third off a Zia Cooke layup. Then the Huskies rattled off a 10-0 run — which included their first 3s of the game — to make it 43-37. The Gamecocks scored the final three points of the frame, and six of the first eight of the fourth, to cushion their lead.

“I think they deserved it 100%,” Auriemma said. “They were the best team all year. The first five minutes I thought they came out and set the tone right then and there for how the game was going to be played.”

Fudd’s and Bueckers’ 3s made it a 10-point game with 3:18 to play, but the Huskies couldn’t pull any closer.

Behind Boston’s productivity, the Gamecocks demolished the Huskies on the boards 49-24, the second-highest rebound differential in a championship game in the history of the women’s NCAA tournament. Though she made only three shots from the field, Boston got to the line eight times, twice the amount of trips made by the entire UConn team.

South Carolina has a whole shot 17-for-26 from the line compared to UConn’s 1-for-4 clip.

“I think a player like Aliyah doesn’t realize her power,” Staley said. “I’ve been around a lot of great basketball players who have been dominant, and I saw it in her, and I would not allow her to be anything less than that.”

A year after Boston’s putback at the buzzer fell short in the national semifinal, Target Center was South Carolina’s playground.

2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, the MOP from South Carolina’s 2017 Final Four run, ventured onto the court for the revelry, sporting a championship cap over the bucket hat she was already wearing.

Staley was grooving to Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine” as she cut down the remnants of the net, and told reporters she’ll be getting another dog, named Natty, to add to the family after bringing home Champ following her first title.

Boston took the mic when on stage to accept the Most Outstanding Player award and shouted out her idol, two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker, before meeting her for the first time later on in the celebration.

Cleone Boston, Aliyah’s mother, texted her daughter and teammates Sunday morning a link to the song “I Am a Warrior” by Marvia Providence, encouraging the players to “don’t allow anyone nor your own mind to talk defeat to you.”

The Gamecocks didn’t let that happen Sunday night. And with another championship in tow, their status atop the sport for the years to come was only further cemented.

What’s the mean for next year’s goal?

“Same as this year,” Boston said.

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