Some things aren’t always meant to be. As much as it felt like destiny for the No. 2 UConn Huskies women’s basketball squad, they had to settle with a 64-49 loss. Gamecocks senior Destanni Henderson stole the show, scoring a game-high 26 points to go along with four assists.
“I’ve said this all along: You have to be really good and a little lucky to win a national championship,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “The 11 times we won, at least 10, we had the better team. This year, South Carolina is the best team in the country.”
“It was an amazing weekend being here with my team and spending my time here,” star guard Paige Bueckers noted. “At UConn, it’s national championship or nothing. I wish things could have gone differently for the seniors.”
“Definitely not the outcome we wanted, but coming back this year was worth it,” Evina Westbrook said. “We win together and lose together, so it hurts.”
When you’re outrebounded 49-24, it’s hard to win many games. UConn found this out Sunday, as no matter how many shots they forced South Carolina to miss, the Gamecocks got so many extra opportunities. National POTY Aliyah Boston led the way on the boards, grabbing 16, while also putting in 11 points. Boston took home Most Outstanding Player, continually asserting her dominance on a depleted Husky frontcourt badly missing Dorka Juhasz.
“We knew [rebounding] was going to be the deciding factor,” Auriemma noted. “Tonight, if we didn’t hold our own on the boards, it was going to be a bad night for us and it was. I thought that was the game right there.”
“We knew they were an extremely physical team,” Bueckers mentioned. “South Carolina’s a great team and they had a great game, so congratulations to them.”
To start out the contest, Destanni Henderson splashed a wide open trey on an offensive board and Zia Cooke got on the break for the layup. Aaliyah Edwards came back and put in a layup to make it a 5-2 game. Boston and Brea Beal got a pair of putbacks, which Cooke followed with a jumper to make the lead 11-2, forcing an early Husky timeout.
“Obviously when you play in a game like this and you don’t win, it’s incredibly difficult,” Auriemma mentioned. “They deserved it. The first five minutes, they set the tone for how they were going to play. We played it even the rest of the way and gave ourselves a chance, but we didn’t have enough. I’m proud of our guys.”
Cooke hit another shot from 17-feet out, but Olivia Nelson-Ododa responded with a post-hook. Victaria Saxton got the board and the bucket and Cooke added a floater to make it 17-4. Edwards dished a nice pass inside to Nika Muhl, who nailed the open layup and Westbrook got a layup of her own. Laeticia Amihere snuffed the run though, banking in a short shot and Boston increased the lead to 22-8 with a spin move in the lane, ending the first quarter.
“From the start of the game, our offense never looked like it was in any sort of rhythm or flow,” Auriemma said. “Their guys prevented us from getting any good looks.”
In a late shot clock situation, Henderson nailed a triple, but a calm Bueckers got her first jumper of the game. Kamilla Cardoso and Edwards traded deuces, but Henderson nailed another three. Bueckers hit back-to-back jumpers, and Cordoso and Nelson-Ododa each got layups. Bueckers went 1-2 from the line and although Nelson-Ododa got the rebound, the Huskies were unable to convert.
Ducharme hit a two off an Edwards block and then got the steal on the other end, which resulted in a Bueckers air ball. Ducharme got a pair of layups to cut it to seven, but a calm and collected Henderson responded with a two. Bueckers hit a tough two and a few wasted possessions took UConn into the break, down just 35-27.
“They’re competitors, they wanted it,” Auriemma said. “Everything was a struggle tonight. That’s what competition is.”
Boston started the second half with a nice two and Cooke increased the lead to 11 with a free throw. Cooke stretched the lead all the way back to 16 with a floater, but Bueckers answered with a floater. Edwards added a layup and Ducharme and Westbrook hit back-to-back 3s to cut it to six. A Henderson travel gave the ball back to the Huskies, but Bueckers turned it back right over. Henderson hit one of two from the stripe and then got a layup to go to end the quarter with the Gamecocks leading 46-37.
Hall started the final frame of the year with a travel and Edwards hit a two on the other end. Boston and Edwards each missed tough shots, but Henderson hit a runner and a layup, forcing a UConn timeout. Bueckers missed a two and Ducharme whiffed on a pair from the line. Ducharme got a fastbreak layup and Boston went one of two from the stripe. Henderson hit a wide open two and Ducharme bricked the three. Henderson added another, but Fudd and Bueckers netted back-to-back 3s to cut it to 10. Henderson hit a pair of free throws and Williams got inside for the layup, but it proved to be too little, too late, as South Carolina walked away with the title.
“You try to use every loss as a lesson,” Bueckers noted. “Every loss is hard to swallow and watch again. You gotta do everything you can in the offseason to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“It was a nonstop series of events that we had to keep dealing with, even today,” Auriemma concluded. “It didn’t stop all year long. It was a remarkable effort by our guys to stay together the whole year and be in this game. When this wears off, they’ll appreciate the effort it took to get here.”
This is the Gamecocks’ second-ever title and is Auriemma’s first loss in his 12 tries.