‘A huge opportunity’: Gamecocks taking different approach to 2019 UConn game
Who: No. 12 South Carolina (17-5, 9-1 SEC) vs. No. 5 Connecticut (21-2, 10-0 American)
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11
Where: XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut
Watch: ESPN2 or streaming on WatchESPN
Radio: 107.5 FM in Columbia area
Series history: South Carolina has never beaten UConn, with seven losses all-time and five in the past four years.
Last meeting: The Huskies ended the Gamecocks’ 2017-18 season in the NCAA tournament, defeating USC 94-65 in the Elite Eight in Albany, New York.
South Carolina projected starting lineup: Junior guard Tyasha Harris, redshirt junior guard Te’a Cooper, redshirt senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore, redshirt senior forward Alexis Jennings, junior forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
Connecticut projected starting lineup: Junior guard Crystal Dangerfield, freshman guard Christyn Williams, senior guard Katie Lou Samuelson, senior forward Napheesa Collier, sophomore forward Megan Walker
XL challenge: In the past decade, the Huskies have amassed a 159-4 record in their home arenas of Gampel Pavilion and XL Center, with the sole nonconference defeat coming on Feb. 18, 2013, nearly six years ago, when Baylor topped UConn 76-70. The closest USC has ever gotten was an 11-point loss in 2017.
But coach Dawn Staley is trying to throw all that history away and start fresh. That started with her own approach, she said, where she was beginning to fall into the classic definition of insanity.
“This year, I’m doing it differently. I want different results. I’m not going to keep doing the same thing and not getting what we want. I’m just going to treat it like a regular game,” Staley said.
That change in mindset is being mirrored by her players, Staley said. With many of the newcomers, UConn’s reputation and past results against Carolina are history.
“It’s weird because I don’t think they even pay attention to basketball. They’re approaching it just like another game,” Staley said. “They’re even-keeled people. So they don’t get too high with the highs, they don’t get too excited. We play our first SEC game, and we’re talking about (Texas A&M’s) Chennedy Carter and how good she is and (freshman Destanni Henderson is) like, ‘I can’t guard her but she can’t guard me either.’ That’s her outlook, and I like it.”
Flustering the youngsters: UConn freshman Christyn Williams earned rave reviews and national attention when she went for 28 points against then-No. 1 Notre Dame.
Sophomore Megan Walker, meanwhile, has taken huge strides from her quiet first season and is averaging 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
But if those two underclassmen struggle, so do the Huskies. In UConn’s two losses this year, Walker has shot 30 percent from the field, while Williams has scored in single figures. In a recent underwhelming win against Cincinnati, Williams had just four points and Walker was 3-for-11 on field goal attempts.
Inconsistency in young players is hardly surprising — South Carolina has experienced plenty of it at times this year. But if the Gamecocks are to pull off the upset, they’ll have to target those less experienced players and hope to catch them on a bad day.
The bad news? The Huskies’ youngsters appear to be regaining some of their “swagger” just in time for Monday’s game.
Toughening up the defense: In two games last year, Connecticut averaged 88.5 points against USC, and a large part of that offensive barrage was the Huskies’ 3-point shooting — they were a combined 23-of-47 from beyond the arc.
And this year, UConn remains one of the nation’s best long-range teams, ranking 26th nationally in 3-point percentage. Coach Geno Auriemma’s squad is also known for its top-notch ball movement, assisting on 63.2 percent of their baskets. Taking those away will be crucial for South Carolina, which ranks 92nd nationally in defensive efficiency, per Her Hoop Stats.
“The live-ball turnovers, the open 3s, they cut really well, and they know each other really, so just shutting down the first, second and third option will be key for us,” junior guard Tyasha Harris said.
One of the teams to beat UConn this year, Baylor, also defeated Carolina early in the season, and Harris said the Gamecocks looked at how the Lady Bears took down the Huskies to help their own game plan.
“We did actually watch the Baylor-UConn game, and we took some things from them and tried to implement them in our game,” Harris said.