PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Dawn Staley’s top-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks turned up their defense in the fourth quarter to turn away UConn.
Aliyah Boston had 22 points and 15 rebounds and the Gamecocks held the No. 2 Huskies to three points in the final 10 minutes of a 73-57 victory in the championship game of the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
“Our players are determined. They are resilient,” said Staley, South Carolina’s Hall of Fame coach. “We knew exactly what we had to do especially on the defensive side of the ball. We had to disrupt. UConn’s a team that’s a well-oiled machine. If you allow them to run their stuff, they’ve made teams look stupid. We had the personnel to disrupt and force them into contested shots.”
This was the 61st meeting between the top two teams in The Associated Press women’s college basketball poll and the sixth time it has happened in November. The No. 1 team holds a 38-23 advantage. The last meeting of the top two teams before Monday was between these same squads back in February. UConn was the No. 2 team and won 63-59 in overtime.
The Gamecocks (6-0) wouldn’t let the Huskies (3-1) beat them in the Bahamas, outscoring them 16-3 in the final quarter, setting off a postgame celebration that had South Carolina swaying alongside a Bahamian dance group.
Trailing 52-50 late in the third quarter, South Carolina cranked up its defense, holding UConn without a field goal for 7:38 spanning the final two periods. By the time Evina Westbrook hit a 3-pointer from the wing with 5 minutes left — UConn’s only points of the fourth — the Huskies trailed 63-57.
They got no closer. Destiny Littleton quickly answered with a 3 on the other end to restore the comfortable margin. She had hit a 3-pointer late in the third period to give the Gamecocks a 57-54 advantage heading into the fourth.
“Our defense did a superb job for 40 minutes,” Staley said. “You didn’t see the impact in the first half. It’s in the third and fourth quarters when you start feeling what our defense does to teams.”
Paige Bueckers, UConn’s sophomore sensation, had 19 points to lead the Huskies, who had won nine of the 10 previous meetings between the schools.
With the championship game taking place around the same time the poll is released each Monday, the AP decided to delay the poll for a day so it would reflect the outcome – the second time since the poll began in 1976 that it has been delayed.
The only other time also involved UConn. The second-ranked Huskies were playing No. 1 Tennessee on Jan. 16, 1995, in the first meeting of their storied rivalry. The Huskies pulled off the upset victory and moved to No. 1 for the first time in school history.
UConn couldn’t do it again on Monday.
“I liked 30 minutes of what we did; it was great,” said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, also a Hall of Famer. “We got tired; our transition game was great in the first half.”
It was an entertaining first half played at the Atlantis Resort inside a converted ballroom that had a spirited crowd supporting both teams. South Carolina jumped out to a 6-0 lead before UConn went on a 20-2 run sparked by senior center Olivia Nelson-Ododa. She had two blocks and drew an offensive foul in the span of a minute during the burst. The Huskies, who once were up by 13, led only 20-14 after one quarter.
The defensive intensity continued in the second quarter as the Gamecocks were able to whittle down their deficit to 36-33 at the half. They continued to chip away in the third quarter before the big run that gave them control of the game.
This was the first of two meetings this season between these teams. The Huskies will visit South Carolina on Jan. 27. Both teams expect to be much improved by the second matchup.
In “the next four months, the team you saw today could be a completely different team. That’s every coach’s hope and prayer,” Auriemma said. “Our team can keep changing every week. Use every experience to build on. … This team, this team’s got some work to do if that’s going to happen. We’re going to have to work really, really hard for that to happen.”
South Carolina outrebounded UConn 42-25, including grabbing 19 offensive boards.
South Carolina: This was the third win over a top-10 team for the Gamecocks this season. They’ve already beat No. 5 North Carolina State and ninth-ranked Oregon.
UConn: The Huskies fell short because they couldn’t get enough offense to help Bueckers.
BY THE NUMBERS
UConn has been involved in 26 of the 1-vs-2 games and has gone 22-4 in those contests, winning the previous nine before Monday’s loss.
South Carolina: Hosts Elon on Friday.
UConn: Visits Seton Hall on Dec. 3.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25