South Carolina’s consistency helped lead Gamecocks to the 2022 NCAA Championship and the nascent Dynasty at Columbia

Sad photos of Aliya Boston will no longer be used for March Madness. The South Carolina Gamecocks won the 2022 NCAA Women’s Basketball Trophy with a 64-49 win over UConn on Sunday.

This was South Carolina’s second-ever appearance in the championship game, giving the Gamecocks a 2-0 win in title games. They’ve had to bounce back after falling to Stanford in the Final Four last year, and they certainly did it in a dominating way.

“I don’t want to get too personal, but they used a sad photo to describe March Madness, although I don’t think that should be the case,” Boston told ESPN after the win. “Yes, there are emotions, but if you use a video of me crying for an extended period of time it will fuel my fire… I don’t want anyone ever to use a video of me crying again, a weak one.” Period. Now you have a smile.”

The Huskies have a long track record in NCAA tournaments, but South Carolina ruined Geno Auriemma’s perfect 11-0 record in championship appearances. Though UConn came in with an impressive resume, South Carolina wasn’t the underdog. The Gamecocks went into Monday’s game as favorites and proved successful. They dominated the Huskies with the same strengths they’ve demonstrated all season: defense and rebound.

South Carolina finished the season with a 35-2 overall record and finished first in the country’s rankings. Only 12 other teams have done that before. A big part of that success was a relentless defense that kept opponents at 50.7 points per game, good for the nation’s third-best. They also finished as the third-best rebounding team with 47.9 rebounds per game.

Boston — who won Naismith Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards — led that effort. The junior forward led her team with 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game and showed her strength by hitting 27 straight double-doubles and 30 overall this season. Boston also led her team in steals and blocks. Head coach Dawn Staley said after the game that even Boston sometimes doesn’t recognize their own power.

Defense and rebounds were things that bothered UConn when the teams met in November and South Carolina walked away with a 73-57 win. The Huskies have been averaging just under 75 points per game this season — which put them in the top 25 nationally — so keeping them at just 57 points hasn’t been an easy feat. South Carolina had a 42-25 rebound advantage in that game.

On Monday, the Gamecocks once again confidently played to their strengths. South Carolina went into halftime with a 35-27 lead, not by passing UConn but by firing more shots. The Huskies shot 54.2% off the field in the first two quarters, while the Gamecocks accounted for 36.6%. However, South Carolina attempted 41 shots while UConn only allowed 24. The Gamecocks had a 20-2 advantage on second chance points after the first two quarters, registering with 16 offensive rebounds against UConn’s three.

South Carolina rose as much as 18 points in the second quarter, but UConn isn’t a team that gives up easily, so the Huskies climbed back and ran a single-digit deficit.

The Gamecocks prevented a UConn comeback by keeping their opponent on 30% shooting in the final two quarters. Chirstyn Williams and Azzi Fudd are two of the most consistent scorers for UConn, but South Carolina kept them both scoreless in the first three quarters. UConn star Paige Bueckers scored, but her 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field wasn’t enough.

Senior guard Destanni Henderson was a big reason Bueckers couldn’t save her team. She put up solid defense all night while registering her career-high 26 points in the most important game of her college career. Henderson didn’t play much in her first two seasons, and on Sunday Staley said that championship win would never have happened if Henderson had left after her freshman year.

“It was a journey that brought me to this moment. It was easy to trust her, it was easy to trust the process,” Henderson said during the post-match press conference. “I had to believe in my role and embrace it…you just have to believe in the process and trust it and great things will happen to you.”

Boston finished the game with 11 points and 16 rebounds. Despite not being her team’s top scorer on Monday, she helped her team end the night with a 49-24 rebound advantage.

Part of what made the Gamecocks so successful was their ability to adapt when things weren’t going their way. Their offense early in the tournament looked far from ideal, especially in the second round game against Miami when the Gamecocks advanced to a 49-33 score after a few points game. But as the saying goes, defense wins championships—at least in South Carolina’s case. The Gamecocks were actually outperformed by UConn on Sunday at 40.7% – 36.7%. However, a strong start and doing the right things in other areas propelled the Gamecocks to victory.

“We haven’t been dominant in all of our games,” Staley said. “But being dominant is being able to win if you don’t do your best. You find a way to win.”

As of Sunday, only seven programs had won multiple titles in NCAA women’s basketball history. Staley – the Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year – just helped South Carolina become the eighth program on this list with their second trophy. As motivation, she carried a piece of the net from 2017 with her at this year’s tournament. She kept it in a bag for the first few laps, but on Sunday she pulled it out. From the start Staley and her players believed they could do it, the trophy was just the icing on the cake.

During the post-game press conference, Boston – a junior who will be back next season – was asked what her goal was for next year. Her answer was short and simple.

“Same as this year,” Boston replied. South Carolina’s consistency helped lead Gamecocks to the 2022 NCAA Championship and the nascent Dynasty at Columbia

Dais Johnston

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