Few teams were better prepared than South Carolina to weather the confluence of talent and history that Connecticut brings to bear upon opponents, 99 of whom have fallen to the Huskies in a row, 97 of those losses coming by double digits.
Nevertheless, the Gamecocks became the 100th consecutive team to lose to the Huskies, falling 66-55 at a sold-out Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, on Monday night.
South Carolina wasn’t blown off the court by the inside-outside athleticism of UConn players like Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier, but the Gamecocks didn’t try and run with the Huskies. Instead, they utilized their skills in the half-court set, patiently limiting possessions and finding A’Ja Wilson for tough shots in traffic and early 3s from Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray and Bianca Cuevas-Moore.
Late in the first half, South Carolina was shooting 50 percent from the field, something only one other Connecticut opponent had accomplished all season. Huskies leading scorer Katie Lou Samuelson was 0-for-7 from the field. And still, in a best-case scenario for the Gamecocks, they only led 29-28 and then trailed, when Collier buried a 3.
By halftime, Connecticut led 35-29 on a Collier transition layup, and Williams had a virtual double-double, 16 points and nine rebounds, a full night’s work in half a game. Connecticut never trailed again.
That mini-run echoed a similar point in the last game Connecticut was challenged in December at Maryland, reflecting a new reality for the Huskies. This is not the Breanna Stewart-Moriah Jefferson era Connecticut, a team last year that strung together nothing but runs. That team beat a Mississippi State team that’s lost only once this season, 98-38. They faced an Oregon State team that featured three current or future WNBA players in the Final Four and crushed them 80-51. They destroyed a Syracuse team in the final, 82-51.
What these Huskies do is find that form, in significant, extended moments, just enough to assert dominance over any opponent, even now. Even a team like South Carolina, with a pair of future lottery picks inside in Wilson and Alaina Coates. Even with Kia Nurse, the team’s best perimeter defender, hampered by an ankle injury that sent her to the locker room midway through the second quarter. It didn’t matter. The muscle memory is too strong by now.
And so, Samuelson curled around a screen and finally sank her first shot in the third quarter, after eight misses. After forcing a Gamecock miss, Samuelson ran the break and fed Saniya Chong for a layup through contact, leading to the three-point play.
Once again, Connecticut is not only the most efficient offense in the country, but entered the night second to Baylor in defensive efficiency as well. And so that South Carolina offense spun its wheels, stuck in the 40s well into the fourth quarter. Wilson went scoreless for much of the second half.
So much went right for South Carolina, but not enough. It’s never enough to beat Connecticut anymore. One hundred and counting, and no one thinks it will end anytime soon.