By Arnie Leshin
Oops, the No. 2-ranked UConn women forgot the fourth quarter, and with that top-ranked South Carolina cruised its way to a commanding 73-57 triumph in Monday morning‘s championship game of the Battle 4 basketball invitational at Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
Now if you were tuned in to this early-season match-up of undefeated schools, it was two different halves, or better yet a huge run by the now 6-0 Gamecocks in the fourth quarter while the Huskies could score only three points on a jumper from 6-foot senior Evina Westbrook after 5:02went by in the final quarter.
And that was it in one of the most disappointing times of head coach Geno Auriemma in his 37 years that have already brought a record 11 NCAA championships. His young team was simply outscored 15-3 in the fourth quarter and South Carolina was a big reason why.
After going up 6-0 at the outset, the Gamecocks fell behind by 13 points in the opening quarter. UConn, now 3-1, was making its shots, moving the ball, and being alert on defense. South Carolina took the lead once, at 7-6 six minutes into the game, and then trailed 20-8 on a jumper from Huskies sophomore Player of the Year Paige Bueckers.
But from being down 23-16 after one quarter, the Gamecocks vastly improved their game by playing tighter and forcing a number of turnovers, having 6-5 junior Aliyah Boston make her way inside to grab rebounds, and shooting better despite trailing 36-33 at halftime.
The third quarter was tight. It brought four ties that began at 40-all with 8:07remaining, and ended with South Carolina in front 57-54. And then came the dismal fourth quarter for Connecticut. Bueckers committed four turnovers, was 0-for-5 from the field, and it became no contest down the stretch as Auriemma’s team made only one of eight tries and included seven turnovers.
“We just lost our way,” he said. “We were in charge early, but they started coming on in the second quarter, and after we were shot-by-shot with them, you could see how we fell apart in the fourth quarter and they took advantage.”
Once head coach Dawn Stanley had her team in gear, it slowed things down to keep the Buecker-led transition game from running the floor. Behind Boston and 5-10 junior guard Zoe Cooke, it held a 61-57 lead for three minutes and two seconds, then 68-57 for nearly two minutes.
Stanley, who was an All-America guard at Temple University and on the USA World Team, was overjoyed when the final buzzer sounded.
“Look,” said Stanley, “We did what we had to do and once we caught up and went ahead, we were able to play our game. We had no problem with their pressing defense, controlled the boards behind Boston, and the next time we see them is January 27th at our place.”
Boston finished with 19 points, the same as Bueckers, who did not have one of her better games, and once the Gamecocks forced shots from her, it was all over but the celebrating. Boston also took down a game-high 11 rebounds, and this helped her team have a 42-25 advantage on the boards.
Bueckers wound up with 8-for-19 shooting from the floor, three for eight in 3s, and lost her way as her team committed 18 turnovers, four more than South Carolina. Boston shot 9-for-15, Cooke handed out six assists and turned in 17 points, and it was 5-7 senior Destinna Henderson who chipped in with a good final quarter by tossing in seven points and coming away with three steals, eight less than her team had.
While South Carolina made good on 31-for-67 from the field, the Huskies were 22-for-50. They converted 10-of-12 foul shots to 6-for-11 for the Gamecocks, but they had more assists, although only one on the Westbrook lone basket in the fourth quarter. And from the halftime lead, they were outscored 40-21 in the second half.
Bueckers had only six points in the second half and was 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter, where Boston put in a pair of baskets and took down five rebounds. Westbrook was good for 14 points, but 5-11 senior Christyn Williams was way off her 34-point career high against South Carolina and turned in only 10 points that included one of seven attempts outside the arc.
But it wasn’t so much of the Gamecocks finding their to the championship trophy, it was just a horrible time for the Huskies that forced a frustrated Auriemma to call a pair of time outs. But he only sent three players off the bench and onto the court, and the talented group had little to show for it.
Azzi Fudd, the National Player of the Year and one of three on the roster — Williams and Bueckers — was a sharp-shooting 6-for-9 from the 3 in the South Florida semifinals win, but this time she got off only two shots and it was a zero game for her.
It was a slow start for South Carolina, but once it got into gear and hit from the outside while Boston took charge inside, it was a good test for both teams until the Huskies forgot there was also a fourth quarter.
But it’s a long season. UConn figures to dominate its return to the Big East, and from what transpired on this day, Auriemma and staff know they have some work to do, and for certain his young roster will continue to hang around and just improve each time out, but must not again forget to play the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks just need to continue their winning ways and hold on to their current spot in the national polls. This was only their second win over UConn in a dozen tries, and the Huskies don’t usually lose to the same team in the same season, but they will have to wait until the New Year when the two meet up again in South Carolina.