By DOUG FEINBERG
Dawn Staley hoisted the championship trophy high, strutted around the court and stopped for a brief victory dance. She handed over the hardware to South Carolina’s student band, then headed back to midcourt for more merriment.
The Gamecocks hit all the right notes this season, and they finished with a masterpiece.
Staley’s team buttoned up on defense and dominated on the glass, beating UConn 64-49 on Sunday night to end the Huskies’ undefeated streak in title games. Destanni Henderson scored a career-high 26 points, Aliyah Boston added 11 points and 16 rebounds, and the Gamecocks handed Geno Auriemma’s Huskies their first loss in 12 NCAA title games.
“We played every possession like it was our last possession,” said Staley, the first Black men’s or women’s coach with two Division I titles. “They were determined to be champions today.”
A year ago, South Carolina lost in the Final Four when Boston missed a layup before the buzzer.
“Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this since last season. Everyone had a picture of me crying,” said Boston, who was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. “Today, we’re national champions and I’m in tears.”
With Staley calling the shots in a Louis Vuitton letterman jacket, South Carolina took UConn to school on the boards and capped a wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in the country in The Associated Press poll. The Gamecocks also won the championship in 2017 with A’ja Wilson leading the way.
This time it was Boston — the AP Player of the Year — and her fellow South Carolina post players who dominated on the game’s biggest stage. The Gamecocks outrebounded UConn 49-24, including a 21-6 advantage on offensive boards.
“We knew tonight that if we didn’t hold our own on the boards, that it was going to be a really bad night for us,,” Auriemma said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
They also clamped down on star Paige Bueckers and the Huskies on defense, just like they did all season long.
“They deserved it 100%,” Auriemma said. “They were the best team all year.”
It was South Carolina’s night from the start. The Gamecocks (35-2) jumped to an 11-2 lead, grabbing nearly every rebound on both ends of the floor. They led to 22-8 after one quarter much to the delight of their fans, who made the trip to Minneapolis to be part of the sellout crowd.
UConn (30-6) trailed by 16 in the second quarter before Bueckers, a Minnesota native, got going. After having just one shot in the first quarter, she scored nine points in the second to get the Huskies within 35-27 at the half. She finished with 14.
An 8-2 run to start the third quarter put South Carolina up 43-29 before the Huskies finally started connecting from behind the arc. UConn missed its first eight 3-point attempts until Caroline Ducharme made one from the wing and Evina Westbrook followed with another to get the Huskies within 43-37.
That’s as close as they could get because of Henderson.
The senior guard had a three-point play to close the third quarter and then had the team’s first four points in the fourth to restore the double-digit lead. The Huskies couldn’t recover.
“My teammates believed in me once again. We’ve been working so hard since Day 1, and it finally paid off, all my hard work, all my focus,” Henderson said. “Me trusting the process. Me trusting God. She just put me in a position just to be great, and today, we national champions.”
This was UConn’s first trip to the championship game since 2016, when the Huskies won the last of four straight titles. Since then, the team has suffered heartbreaking defeats in the national semifinals, losing twice in overtime, before holding off Stanford on Friday night. The Huskies were trying to win their 12th title in the same city they won their first one in 1995.
Auriemma said Saturday that when his team had won each of its 11 titles, the Huskies entered the game as the better team. They certainly weren’t on Sunday.
“We just didn’t have enough,” he said. “They were just too good for us.”
It had been one of the most challenging seasons of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn overcame losing eight players for at least two games with injury or illness, including Bueckers, who missed nearly three months with a left knee injury suffered in early December. She came back in late February but wasn’t at the same level that earned her AP Player of the Year as a freshman last season.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Gamecocks have been stalwarts on defense all season long, ranking third nationally with 50.5 points allowed per game. They were even sharper in the NCAA Tournament, holding opponents to 44.8 points entering Sunday’s finale.
Henderson had three steals, Boston blocked two shots and South Carolina forced 15 turnovers. The Gamecocks’ plus-25 rebounding margin was the second biggest ever in a title game.
UConn: The Huskies lose three seniors in Christyn Williams, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa but still have a solid group back led by Bueckers and freshman Azzi Fudd. If the Huskies stay healthy, they’ll have a good shot to contend for next year’s title.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose Henderson and Victaria Saxton but have all the talent to repeat as champions.