ALBANY – Big-game players thrive in the NCAA Tournament.
The moment is never too big for them, and they almost always make the right plays when the lights are shining brightest.
Crystal Dangerfield is definitely one of those big-game players. She’s proven that time and time again in the big games, and did so again Monday night at the Times Union Center in Albany, leading the UConn women’s basketball team to a 94-65 win over the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks to advance to the Final Four in Columbus.
“I would like to say that (I’m a big-game player) sometimes,” Dangerfield joked in the press conference after the game. “Most times I can’t, but tonight I think I’m able to say that… It was just credit to my teammates. They were finding me when I was open and I was able to knock those shots in. But it was really just really wanting it for my team. We wanted to get back to the Final Four and we came out with great energy.”
Dangerfield raced out of the gates with 19 points in the first half on 6-7 shooting from the field and a perfect 5-5 from 3-point range. She also added four assists with no turnovers in the opening 20 minutes of the game. Every time down the floor, it seemed like the sophomore point guard from Murfreesboro, Tennessee hit a 3-pointer that put a dagger in the Gamecocks’ confidence.
“(Dangerfield) made wide-open shots. They were practice shots with her feet set, no one really around her. And if you watch them in warmups, those are the kind of shots that they hit,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “Certainly, we didn’t do a real good job at staying close to home…by helping off (on defense) too much.”
Traditionally a pass-first playmaking point guard who won’t always take an open 3-pointer, Dangerfield did not shy away from the big moments Monday. Even when she wasn’t hitting 3s, and that was rare, the point guard still dictated the pace of play when the ball was in her hands and made the Huskies’ offense tick at full efficiency.
“It’s really important when Crystal gets going,” UConn junior guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. “She has the ball. She kinda leads us every day so there’s nothing better than when she’s scoring like that so we’re all gonna follow and go up from there because she really just kinda takes over. And when she’s shooting the way she did, we’re getting her the ball and she’s taking great shots so there’s really nothing more you can ask from her.”
Dangerfield finished with 21 points and six assists for the game after a slower second half, but was easily the most impactful player of the game when it was close. Her shooting from beyond the arc gave South Carolina fits, but also freed up the floor for the rest of her teammates to find space in 3-point range.
“I think that’s something that makes us special, the fact that we have so many players who can just step up on any given day and play the way Crystal did today,” UConn senior guard Kia Nurse said. “I thought she was absolutely incredible and that’s great for us. It’s a great momentum-builder and it just gives teams another player they have to really pay attention to.”
The Huskies (36-0) finished a magnificent 9-10 from outside the 3-point line in the first half and continued to excel in the second half, ultimately finishing 12-20 for a 60 percent day.
“It was just the way the ballgame was going,” South Carolina senior forward A’Ja Wilson said. “We could’ve tried anything, but they were shooting pretty well, great, from the 3-point line. That was one of our keys, defending from the 3-point line, and we had a little trouble doing that.”
If Dangerfield was definitely the crucial player for UConn’s success in the first half, then Gabby Williams was the same for the team in the second half. The senior forward from Sparks, Nevada always gives teams nightmares, but especially wreaked havoc on the Gamecocks in the last 20 minutes of Monday’s Elite Eight matchup, scoring 15 points on 7-8 shooting along with three rebounds and three assists.
Williams’ individual performance – she finished with a team-high 23 points on 11-16 shooting and five rebounds and assists, respectively – really helped seal the game for the No. 1 overall Huskies.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said culture and team talent, generally speaking, are sufficient to get a team to the Regional rounds of the NCAA Tournament. However, the legendary head coach said it takes superb individual performances to help a team advance to the final weekend of the big show.
The combined efforts of Williams and Dangerfield were remarkable, leading UConn to a tactical and merciless win over their national rivals. It’s those kinds of big games, from big-time players that win games in March, and if you’re lucky enough to get there, April.
“It’s going to be an individual or two – like these two – that have spectacular performances that separate themselves from everybody else,” Auriemma said. “Just individual brilliance on their part and that’s what you need at this time… Individuals move you past this point. It’s having those kinds of players play for you on this weekend that allows you to keep going.”
With the win, the Huskies have gotten back to the Final Four for an unfathomable 11th consecutive year. Awaiting them in Columbus for the National Semifinal Friday will be long-time rivals Notre Dame if they want a chance to win a fifth title in six years and 12th title overall.
Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @realchrishanna.