Ten months ago, South Carolina and UConn met in the national championship game. The Gamecocks won the title and haven’t lost since.
They face off again Sunday in the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
The Gamecocks are 22-0 and projected as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies have lost twice this season — to Notre Dame and Maryland in the first two weeks of December — and have dealt with a plethora of injuries. But they are still the No. 5 team in the country and are also projected as a No. 1 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology.
Sunday’s game marks the 13th meeting between the programs. The series wasn’t much of a rivalry until 2020, when South Carolina beat UConn for the first time after eight losses. The Gamecocks are now 3-1 in the series.
What can we expect from both teams in the last high-profile non-conference matchup of the regular season? ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and MA Voepel break down the game and what’s at stake.
How will South Carolina’s depth and UConn’s lack of available players impact the matchup?
Charlie Creme: Depth, along with defense (no team allows fewer points per game), has been South Carolina’s calling card this season. On Sunday against Alabama, the bench outscored the starters. The Gamecocks have 11 players in the regular rotation who are averaging double-figure minutes per game.
The Huskies, who will be playing their sixth game in just over two weeks, only used six players in their game last Sunday against Villanova, with Nika Muhl, Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhász playing all 40 minutes. Despite showing great resolve to win the game, the weariness showed. The fatigue was even more evident in Thursday’s sluggish win over Providence. Geno Auriemma and Muhl admitted after the game that the team was tired.
No team in the country is better at wearing down an opponent than South Carolina. UConn might be talented enough to overcome its lack of depth against anyone except the Gamecocks.
MA Voepel: Sometimes depth is an overrated thing in basketball, but in this case the contrast between the teams is stark. South Carolina brings Kamilla Cardoso, Laeticia Amihere, Raven Johnson, Bree Hall and Ashlyn Watkins all off the bench. That’s how much talent (and actually, there is even more) coach Dawn Staley has, and the players have bought into her system, where no one averages more than 25 minutes per game.
The Huskies can’t afford two players having “off” games without it seriously affecting them. South Carolina can withstand that and more. The Gamecocks wouldn’t want one of those players to be superstar Aliyah Boston, but you could see them beating a top-five foe even if she wasn’t at her best. To UConn’s credit, the Huskies have stood up to all their depth challenges. As Charlie said, the toughest team in the country to do that against is South Carolina.
Alexa Philippou: The shorthanded Huskies put up an admirable effort against Tennessee in a hostile environment, but each game since we’ve seen the effects of both mental and physical fatigue weighing on their starters. Yes, UConn has eight available players, but its three reserves would be the last ones off the bench if the team were healthy. Against Providence, that trio played a combined 27 minutes and finished with one point, one assist and zero rebounds. And while it appears Caroline Ducharme (concussion) is nearing a potential return, it’s not likely she’ll be ready by Sunday.
The lack of depth didn’t end up hurting UConn against Tennessee, but the Gamecocks are too good and too deep not to capitalize on their plethora of options. Auriemma will have his group prepared and ready to grind it out no matter the ultimate result, but Staley just has too many options and fresh legs at her disposal.
Aliyah Boston and Aaliyah Edwards are two of the best players in the nation this season. How will they match up?
Vöpel: This game is much-anticipated not just because it is a rematch of the 2022 national championship game, but because we get to see how an improved Edwards fares against Boston, who is the measuring stick for college post players.
It’s been fun to see how Edwards’ game has grown this season and how well she has embraced having so much weight on her shoulders. As a junior, she has blossomed into what we think of as the classic UConn post player: She creates a big target, she is relentless on the boards, she passes well, she doesn’t get rattled.
Boston was a pro-ready player even last season, and she has had no drop-off in ability even if her stats are lower. The combination of South Carolina’s depth and the Gamecocks’ dominance of many of their opponents explain why Boston’s numbers are down even though she’s playing just as well.
Creme: Not only is Boston a unique talent, but her presence within the South Carolina system is unique. She doesn’t have to be statistically dominant for the Gamecocks to win. A 13-point, eight-rebound game for Boston could produce the same result as a 22 and 15 output. These days, Edwards is not afforded that luxury.
She has to play substantial minutes and produce big numbers for UConn to win almost any game, let alone one against the best team in the country. When the two are matched up one-on-one, how effective Edwards is making those 15-foot jump shots on which she has improved so much will be important, especially early in the game. That should draw Boston away from the basket, freeing up Juhász to operate in the low post and create more driving room for Aubrey Griffin. The more Edwards’ athleticism and Juhász’s deep shooting talents are able to move Boston around, UConn will have more chance at success.
Philippe I don’t expect UConn’s posts to combine for 12 points and four rebounds like they did against South Carolina in the 2022 national title game. An improved Edwards and healthy Juhász have made this year’s Huskies frontcourt much more potent than last year’s, and they’ve been further bolstered by Griffin’s return. That said, UConn allowed Tennessee to dominate the offensive glass, so that’s one area the Huskies need to improve if they want to keep Sunday’s game competitive. While Boston singlehandedly doesn’t need to do as much as South Carolina for the Gamecocks to win, a UConn upset seems improbable without, likely, both Edwards and Juhász having great games.
I still give the edge to South Carolina here. Not only do the Gamecocks have Boston, they have Cardoso and several athletic forwards at their disposal, which could be even more important if foul trouble becomes a factor.
Which team has the edge in the backcourt?
Nika Muhl drops a no-look dime to give UConn the lead
Nika Muhl makes a nice pass in transition to Aubrey Griffin for the easy layup.
Philippe: Much focus will be on the Boston-Edwards showdown, but don’t sleep on the battle in the backcourt. Lou Lopez Sénéchal has been a revelation for the Huskies, although she’s looked tired this week, going 1-for-8 on 3-pointers across the past two games. Zia Cooke, meanwhile, has posted a career-best 2-point efficiency (42.0%) and has improved her 3-point clip from last year (28.7% to 38.0%).
As Charlie points out below, UConn’s lack of ball handlers could really hurt the Huskies against such a defensive-minded team as South Carolina — it’s one of the reasons they’ve been so turnover-prone even though they’ve managed to keep winning for the most part. At the end of the day, this game is where they’ll most miss injured Azzi Fudd’s ballhandling, shot-creating and shooting.
Creme: The Huskies are the most efficient offense in the country, largely because of the play of Muhl, Lopez Sénéchal and Griffin. If UConn has an advantage in this game, this is it. South Carolina’s guards don’t play with the same offensive crispness or shot-making ability as UConn’s.
South Carolina can run waves of athletic guards at UConn’s band of three. Because foul trouble, with the possible exception of leading scorer Cooke, is not something Dawn Staley has to worry about, the likes of Beal, Amihere, Johnson, Hall and Kierra Fletcher can play as physically as they want. Over 40 minutes that could take a toll, especially on Muhl and Lopez Sénéchal, who are UConn’s predominant ball handlers.
Vöpel: Muhl is an old-school point guard: Her primary role is as a facilitator and she’s great at it, leading Division I women with 8.8 assists per game. Where would UConn be without Lopez Senéchal? The Fairfield Stags transfer looks as if she’s been with the Huskies for years. These two have been so impressive, especially considering how much and how well they have played with Fudd and Ducharme out with injuries and Paige Bueckers missing the season.
But South Carolina’s guard corps brings size, length and quickness. Cooke leads the Gamecocks in scoring (15.4) and is their best 3-point shooter. When she leaves the court, South Carolina has replacements who might not be Cooke’s offensive equal but excel defensively.
What’s at stake for the projected No. 1 seed?
Creme: From a Bracketology perspective, South Carolina has nothing to lose, or gain, for that matter. The Gamecocks are entrenched as a No. 1 seed. A loss doesn’t change that. In fact, a loss isn’t even nearly enough to cost them the No. 1 overall spot. A win would all but lock that down.
The game has more meaning for the Huskies. A loss, especially a close one, wouldn’t immediately cost them a No. 1 seed. But if UConn pulls the upset without Fudd and Ducharme, it would take something considerable over the next month to knock the Huskies out of a top seed.
Where it gets interesting is if UConn gets blown out on Sunday and a week later LSU beats South Carolina — or at least makes it a competitive game. That could be the best case the Tigers — currently a No. 2 seed — would have too moving past the Huskies to a No. 1 seed.
Which team wins Sunday?
Vöpel: The way the Gamecocks have looked, how do you pick against them? South Carolina gets the nod, for sure. But it’s unlikely the Huskies won’t play up to expectations, too, because that’s what the program does. And the XL Center crowd, having so few times when they can rally behind a UConn team considered the underdog, should be very energetic. The game could be close in the first half, and UConn might even lead at the break. But it’s hard to see the Gamecocks not wearing down the Huskies, taking control and closing them out.
Creme: UConn is the most accurate field goal shooting team in the country. No one holds their opponents to a lower percentage than the Gamecocks. It’s the ultimate strength vs. strength matchup. But this game is coming at the wrong time for the Huskies. They look worn down after two months of overcoming injuries and illness. To beat South Carolina, even UConn would need to be at its peak powers. Even on the road, this is the Gamecocks’ game to lose — and they won’t. The Huskies will find a way to stay close as long as they can. But 40 minutes is a long time, and South Carolina wins going away.
Philippe: South Carolina wins this one behind its superior depth, but if these two teams meet again in March or April — and UConn has Ducharme and Fudd back into the fold and playing at a high level — the result could be much different.