basketball Edit

WBB: Five Things to Watch - UConn


South Carolina steps out of conference Monday for its annual matchup with Connecticut.

1. Lack of buzz

Compared to previous years, there is a noticeable lack of hype surrounding this game. Maybe it’s because both teams are, by their lofty standards, having down seasons. Maybe it’s because there is more parity in women’s basketball this season than there has been in years. And maybe, and this is probably the main reason, it’s because until South Carolina actually wins a game against Connecticut, there isn’t much rivalry to speak of.

“It’s a huge opportunity and every year we look forward to it and every year we think we’ve got to team to do it,” Dawn Staley said. “I feel good about where we are and the personnel we have going into the game. We’re a lot more guard heavy than we were in the past so hopefully that will do the trick.”

2. “I’d rather beat UConn.”

Reliable sources tell me Staley isn’t fond of this quote being dug up, but with all due apologies, I think it represents a pivotal moment in how Staley built the Gamecocks into an elite program.

To review, during her first season, Staley was asked what it would mean to beat rival Clemson. Not much, she answered, “I’d rather beat UConn.” South Carolina went out and lost to Clemson. Staley began turning South Carolina around when she adjusted her goals and worried about beating Clemson. Once that happened, she worried about beating the SEC.

Then, four years ago, ESPN helped broker a made-for-TV matchup between the upstart Gamecocks and the venerable Huskies. It was, and continues to be, a game both programs like playing, and ESPN likes promoting and airing, but both coaches dance around the question of what it really means.

And what does it mean? Almost nothing. In the loaded SEC, South Carolina has more important things to worry about. Playing Connecticut is a chance for South Carolina to measure itself against a less familiar team, not a must-win game. And Connecticut, which rolls through a weak conference and needs the game as a resume builder, tacitly admitted last season that it spends extra time preparing for South Carolina because it doesn’t have to worry about most of its conference foes.

So the end result is, 11 years after she said it, and probably 10 years after she changed her mind, Staley still doesn’t worry about beating UConn. After all, Connecticut hasn’t won a FInal Four game in three years, and South Carolina has a National Championship in that time.

“We’d love to continue the home and home,” Staley said. “We’ve got a good group coming in so hopefully we can continue to challenge them.”

3. Threes from UConn, see last year

South Carolina and Connecticut have met once with something actually on the line, and that was in last year’s Sweet 16. In that game, Crystal Dangerfield got hot from three and scored 19 first half points leading the way as Connecticut buried South Carolina with a barrage of threes. The game was over almost as soon as it started, as Connecticut led 30-12 after one quarter. A’ja Wilson scored 27 in her final game, but couldn’t keep pace as Connecticut seemingly couldn’t miss.

The regular season matchup last year went similarly. Three quick threes put the Huskies on top, and then a 19-2 run to start the second quarter put the game out of reach. The Gamecocks actually won the second half, but had already dug too big of a hole to climb out of. If the Gamecocks are going to finally beat the Huskies, they have to avoid a slow start and early deficit.

4. Freshmen surge

Over the past two games South Carolina has seen a pair of freshmen emerge as impact players, Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton. Henderson was the more highly-touted recruit, but had trouble finding a role in South Carolina’s loaded backcourt. Saxton, too, had stronger and more experienced players in front of her. But both scored 19 against Arkansas and then followed it up with another strong game against Ole Miss. Henderson had 12 points, five rebounds, and five assists, while Saxton had 12 points, three rebounds, and two blocks.

Defense and rebounding got Saxton on the court, and her ability to score around the basket got her more playing time. For Henderson, the journey was a little different. She started five games earlier in the season and scored in double figures three times, but she also was shooting less than 30 percent and didn’t get on the court against Kentucky.

Henderson didn’t lose confidence, and Staley turned to her against Arkansas for a spark. Henderson came up big, and now she could be a key player as South Carolina tries to upset Connecticut. Staley joked that Henderson, who is shooting 65 percent over the last two games, never lost confidence because she doesn’t know enough to have her confidence shaken.

“I don’t even think they pay attention to basketball,” Staley said. “We played our first SEC game and we’re talking about Chennedy Carter and how good she is, and Destanni is like, ‘I can’t guard her but she can’t guard me either.’ That’s her outlook and I like it.”

5. Scouting the Huskies

How the mighty have fallen. This year’s Huskies have lost two games in a season for the first time in six seasons. They are resorting to gimmicks like a white out game against the Gamecocks. That’s sarcasm, for those who don’t understand. Could there be some cracks beginning to show for the Huskies? Maybe. Is the dynasty over? Hardly.

Connecticut’s two losses were at Baylor and at Louisville, the current #1 and #2 teams. In both games, Connecticut shot poorly and failed to force turnovers to get easy points, and the role players didn’t contribute a lot. Another factor: Connecticut shoots a lot of threes, and usually makes a lot. But in the two losses, it only attempted 22 combined free throws and didn’t convert opportunities, making just 13.

“A down year? They lose two games?” Staley said. “With UConn they’ve always been a well-oiled machine. They have two pieces that are gone that gave them some experience, and you add another piece, and it’s taken them a little while longer to play UConn basketball. It’s coming.”

The Ws

Who: South Carolina (17-5, 9-1) at Connecticut (21-2, 10-0)

When: Monday, February 10, 7:00 pm

Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT

Watch: ESPN2, there is also an ESPN3 “SmackTalk” broadcast featuring A’ja Wilson and Sue Bird