For years South Carolina chased UConn. The Gamecocks haven’t just caught the Huskies, they’ve blown past them.
In 2007, the year before Dawn Staley arrived in Columbia, South Carolina played a game – well, participated in a game – at UConn and lost 97-39. Staley inherited the return game, and South Carolina lost 77-48.
After the game, some UConn players were asked how the Gamecocks had changed since the previous year. A confused player said, “We didn’t play South Carolina last year,” before being corrected.
That said more than any answer she could have given.
They didn’t play again for six seasons, until Staley had built a team capable of competing. The margins got closer, but UConn still kept winning easily.
“It’s hard. You have to thank UConn because for the first part of our home-and-home, they got nothing out of it except another blowout. To continue the home-and-home, it allowed us to grow as a program,” Staley said. “I thank Geno for continuing to play us because he’s helped us grow.”
The Gamecocks finally broke through in 2020. Now they are a missed layup at the end of regulation in 2021 away from winning six straight against the Huskies,
And the margins aren’t close. South Carolina has won by 18, 16, 15, four, and 18 again. Before running out the clock, South Carolina led by 27 in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks’ largest lead ever against the Huskies. It’s clear the scores aren’t flukes.
“They’re a much different team than some of the previous teams that we’ve played down here,” Geno Auriemma said. “They’re able to keep the pressure on because they can bring more bodies off the bench, but they have the ability to put pressure on you from the perimeter as well as inside way more so than any other time that I remember.”
Auriemma is notoriously grouchy after games, but he seemed resigned to the result on Sunday.
Historically, UConn is still the gold standard. The 11 national championships, 22 Final Fours, the 111-game winning streak – South Carolina can’t match that, and probably never will.
“You’re always playing the tradition of their program,” Staley said.
That tradition used to be worth a couple of extra baskets a game. UConn is down this season. Their AP poll rank of 11 is the lowest they’ve ever had against the Gamecocks and the roster has been decimated by injuries. But everyone still measures themselves against the Huskies.
But for the present day, it’s a different story. The Gamecocks were also short-handed on Sunday, with their best player Kamilla Cardoso off playing for the Brazilian national team. But South Carolina made the necessary adjustments and didn’t miss a beat. It was a testament to South Carolina’s talent, depth, and maturity.
“Our players are committed to the process,” Staley said. “You’re fortunate enough to have players that don’t get a whole lot of minutes step up in a big way. That means we’re doing something right. It means our players’ mindsets are right.”
“Everybody should feel good about where we are as a program,” she said.
It doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon, either. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for South Carolina at best, and the beginning of a backward slide at worst. Instead, South Carolina is 23-0. No other power conference team has fewer than three losses.
And they are young. Of the nine Gamecocks that played, just two were seniors. There were five freshmen and sophomores.
Next season the Gamecocks add the second-ranked recruiting class, again, which includes the second-ranked overall player (Joyce Edwards), second-ranked point guard (Maddy McDaniel), and second-ranked post (Adhel Tac). Plus the top-ranked player (Sarah Strong) was in attendance on Sunday.
South Carolina is the current gold standard not just because of this season. It’s because of the past four seasons, this season, and how they are set up for seasons to come.