In a matchup of the two highest-ranked teams in women’s basketball, the University of South Carolina overwhelmed the University of Connecticut in the fourth quarter for a 73-57 victory on Monday in the final of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
This was the first time a women’s competition had been part of the prestigious tournament, which has existed since 2011 for men.
The decisive victory gave South Carolina a 2-9 record against UConn in the history of the programs, and it should preserve the Gamecocks’ No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. To accommodate the high-profile matchup, the A.P. delayed its weekly poll update for just the second time ever.
The rout also offers clues about how these two teams might fare later in the season, both during their next regular season game against each other — in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 27 — and through the deep postseason runs both teams are expected to make toward the Final Four.
Despite remarkable performances from the teams’ stars, the story of the game lay in its fundamentals: turnovers and offensive rebounds.
The Huskies (3-1) went into halftime with a 3-point lead but could not generate any points from turnovers or offensive rebounds during the second half. The Gamecocks (6-0) forced 19 turnovers, capitalizing on them for 21 points.
“We just took the shots they gave us,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said on ESPN after the game.
UConn’s sloppiness, uncharacteristic of the long-dominant program, is something that the team, particularly its young core, will have to work on.
“We’ve got a long time before we go down there and play them again,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma told reporters after the game. “But right now, they’re better than us. We’re going to have to work really, really hard.”
The Gamecocks, in contrast, played sharp and turned to their signature defense in the second half, allowing Connecticut to score just 3 points in the fourth quarter against tight man-to-man coverage.
The junior forward Aliyah Boston nearly had a double-double in the first half, and ended the game with 22 points and 15 rebounds — the kind of performance that South Carolina is relying on her to deliver throughout the season.
“It’s time for Aliyah Boston to be the dominant player she is,” Staley said.
The guards Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson are the other two keys to the South Carolina offense. Cooke had 17 points worth of circus shots, while Henderson’s veteran savvy manifested in speedy transition baskets and a well-balanced stat line of 15 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 steals.
Overall, the team showed its depth — and that it has ample room to grow. If, for example, the Gamecocks can get Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Syracuse, more involved in the paint, they might have an easy answer for a tough interior defense like Connecticut’s.
This was the first big test of the season for the Huskies. UConn guard Paige Bueckers, the team’s leading scorer, delivered a number of showstopping baskets, and in the first half the Huskies’ ball movement looked nearly transcendent. Thatrhythm, though, disintegrated in the second half, when only Bueckers had more than one field goal.
Connecticut will have plenty of shooters ready to help, though, once it reduces some of its more basic mistakes. The redshirt senior guard Evina Westbrook was the spark for the Connecticut offense early, and the team’s second leading scorer. With more opportunities, she might be able to lift some of the offensive load off Bueckers.
Azzi Fudd, a highly regarded freshman, barely played Monday after scoring 18 points against the University of South Florida on Sunday, a decision Auriemma attributed to her inability to move within South Carolina’s stifling defense. With more time in college basketball’s big leagues, though, Fudd might become a consistent scoring threat.
Connecticut needs to fix its flaws in the coming months if it wants to establish the kind of dominance that for more than decades has made it the foremost team in women’s college basketball.
In Monday’s win, the Gamecocks didn’t reveal such shortcomings. The adjustments they needed could be handled during the game and not left for a future practice.
The road to the Final Four won’t be easy for any team in the sport. But with this statement victory, South Carolina suggested that is firmly on course.