Two of the biggest powerhouses in women’s basketball will add another chapter to their rivalry Thursday night when the No. 1 UConn Huskies head south to take on the No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks on national television.
UConn (20-0, 9-0 the American) is undefeated this season and will look to win its fifth consecutive game against the Gamecocks. South Carolina (18-3, 7-2 SEC) is the defending national champion and is undoubtedly hungry for a victory against the No. 1 team in front of a rambunctious home crowd.
“Obviously they’re really good,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of the Gamecocks. “They won a national championship and they get a great crowd down there… They’re tough, they’re physically tough.”
The Huskies have played the Gamecocks in each of the past three seasons and have emerged victorious each time. Included in that stretch was a home victory over No. 1 South Carolina in 2014-15, a result that the Gamecocks would love to avenge.
UConn last traveled to South Carolina in the 2015-16 season for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. That trip ended with a Huskies’ win, led by 25 points and 10 rebounds from Breanna Stewart. Auriemma knows Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson can’t save the day this time around and hopes his team is ready for a difficult environment.
“Their fans are passionate; the environment is unbelievable…” Auriemma said. “If you told me those three were going to meet us down there and play in the game, I’d feel a lot better. We’ll see whether or not this team is equipped to handle that.”
The Gamecocks’ three losses this season have come against teams ranked in the top 15 of this week’s AP Poll. Head coach Dawn Staley has led her team to a 10-1 record at home.
South Carolina is powered by star forward A’ja Wilson, who is seventh in Division I in scoring with 23.1 points per game. Wilson is also 15th in the country in rebounding, grabbing an average of 11.2 rebounds.
In last year’s matchup, UConn forwards Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier kept the Gamecocks’ forwards in check on the defensive end, allowing the Huskies to win a low-scoring game 66-55. Offensively, Katie Lou Samuelson struggled mightily, shooting just 2-12 from the field.
“Gabby was magnificent the entire game, as was Napheesa,” Auriemma said of his forwards’ performance in the most recent matchup.
In addition to stellar defense, Williams led UConn with an impressive 26 points and 14 rebounds in last season’s matchup, excelling against South Carolina’s dominant post players. As a senior leader, she will have to lead the way this year in the hostile environment.
“We’re the guys who have been there before,” Williams said. “So the younger guys who haven’t played there, got as many minutes, they’re going to have to look to us. So we have to show them how it’s done.”
Several UConn players are banged up with minor injuries, as Crystal Dangerfield, Williams and Samuelson have all been limited in practice. Expect all three to be in the starting lineup come game time.
Thursday’s game is shaping up to be one of the toughest tests remaining on UConn’s schedule. The Huskies have just one non-conference game remaining after the trip to South Carolina, and the Gamecocks will be one of a few teams that can end UConn’s chance at an undefeated regular season.
“You have to make sure that you’re well prepared and that you know you’re going to be in for a battle, because that’s exactly what it’s going to be,” Auriemma said.
The game will be broadcast on ESPN with tip off at 7 p.m.
Josh Buser is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.