Hartford -- This was finally an opportunity for UConn fans to see their team play a quality opponent at their own venue, and the Huskies did not disappoint.
The No. 11 South Carolina women’s basketball team (17-6, 9-1 SEC) jumped out to a 10-point first quarter lead, but behind a strong team effort, especially from freshman Christyn Williams, the No. 4 UConn Huskies (22-2, 10-0 The American) were able to roll past the Gamecocks 97-79 at the XL Center. Napheesa Collier said this win against a top team shows that the Huskies have fixed some issues.
“It shows us that we did take those losses and we learned from them,” Collier said of correcting mistakes from losses to Baylor and Louisville. “We are not just going to do the same things over and over again. The losses were really hard, but like I said, there is always something to be learned, especially from a loss.”
Collier, who is making a strong case for National Player of the Year, led the team with 31 points and tied her career-high for rebounds (16). With the Gamecocks coming out strong offensively, knocking down their first three shots, Collier was able to attack and score UConn’s first four points. With Collier scoring at least 30 points in back-to-back games, it is hard for head coach Geno Auriemma to say much else about his stand-out senior.
“Every coach talks about their players, I mean, as if they are the best players ever,” Auriemma said about Collier. “I usually don’t get caught up in that stuff, you know, but there can’t be, anywhere, a player that’s playing better or does more for their team than Napheesa Collier does. I don’t see how that’s possible.”
When Auriemma took Collier out with 1:21 left in the game, not only did Collier receive a thunderous ovation, but Auriemma greeted her with a bear hug. In a previous game, the team subbed the wrong person, so Collier thought it was happening again, which caused initial confusion when he called her over. Nonetheless, it was a special moment for the senior and her future Hall of Fame coach.
Despite the Huskies winning by 18 points, it wasn’t the easiest win of the season for them. However, it may have been the most impressive. The difference in the game was the third quarter, where they took a 44-43 halftime lead and outscored the Gamecocks 29-12 in the quarter.
“We didn’t hit shots, I mean we hit shots in the first two quarters,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “When you’re able to do that, you gotta keep it close with UConn. You’re not coming back from a big lead, being in this building and the elements surrounding the game.”
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for UConn was freshman guard Christyn Williams, who played with swagger and assertiveness on her way to scoring 19 points and grabbing four rebounds.
“Some kids, they are thinkers, you know they think too much and they want to do the right thing all the time,” Auriemma said. “So they are constantly thinking about, ‘what do I have to do,’ you know, ‘what am I doing?’ She got caught, a little bit, thinking about playing instead of playing.”
Most freshmen experience ups and downs. Williams has experienced the ups when she scored 28 points against Notre Dame and the downs when she scored zero points against USF. She started to focus on other things than scoring and it has led her away from her struggles. On Monday against South Carolina, it seemed as if she put those struggles in distant memory.
“Just stay positive and listen to what coach says,” Williams said on what she has focused on. “If (Auriemma) says, ‘run through a brick wall,’ you ask ‘how many times?’ Just listen to everything (Auriemma) says and go out there and do it.”
Williams did not just attack the rim and the defenders when she had the ball in her hands, Williams attacked the boards to create second chance opportunities for herself and her teammates.
To start off the third quarter, Williams crashed the boards to reel in two offensive rebounds before she connected on a difficult layup. This play gave the Huskies early momentum and extended the lead to 48-45 in the second half. It was something she wanted to accomplish in the game.
“I was talking to Lou after the last game where I had zero rebounds and there has been multiple games that I’ve gotten zero rebounds,” Williams said of her signature play Monday night. “So, I was really trying to at least get one.”
Auriemma said that the third quarter was probably the best the team has played all season, considering the opposition. As the season inches closer to March, they will continue to put Williams into situations where she can succeed.
“If we get great contributions from all five of them, we can really be a really good team,” Auriemma said. “And someone who’s a scorer like (Williams) is, it’d be a crime, really, to not get her the ball a lot and have her do a lot.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.