Staley leads South Carolina to second NCAA title ahead of UConn

MINNEAPOLIS – Dawn Staley hoisted the championship trophy, strutted across the court and paused for a brief victory dance. She handed over the hardware to the South Carolina collegiate band, then headed back to midcourt for some more fun.

The Gamecocks hit all the right notes this season and ended with a masterpiece.

Staley’s team buttoned up on defense and dominated on the glass, beating UConn 64-49 on Sunday night to end the Huskies’ unbeaten streak in title games. Destanni Henderson posted a career-high 26 points, Aliyah Boston added 11 points and 16 rebounds, and the Gamecocks gave Geno Auriemma’s Huskies their first loss in 12 NCAA title games.

“We played every possession like it was our last possession,” said Staley, the first black men’s or women’s coach to have two Division I titles. “They were determined to be champions today.”

A year ago, South Carolina lost the Final Four when Boston missed a layup before the buzzer.


“Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it since last season. Everyone had a picture of me crying,” said Boston, who was the most outstanding player of the Final Four. “Today we are national champions and I burst into tears.”

With Staley calling the shots in a Louis Vuitton Letterman jacket, South Carolina brought UConn to school and capped a wire-to-wire run as the No. 1 team in the country in a poll by The Associated Press. The Gamecocks also won the championship in 2017 with A’ja Wilson at the helm.

This time, it was Boston – the AP Player of the Year – and her fellow Post players from South Carolina who dominated the game’s biggest stage. The Gamecocks overtook UConn 49-24, including a 21-6 advantage on offensive boards.

“We knew tonight that if we didn’t hold our ground on the boards it was going to be a really bad night for us,” said Auriemma. “And that’s exactly what happened.”


They also took on star Paige Bueckers and the Huskies on defense just like they have done all season.

“They deserved it 100%,” said Auriemma. “They were the best team all year.”

It was South Carolina night from the start. The Gamecocks (35-2) went to an 11-2 lead and snagged almost every rebound on either end of the floor. They led 22-8 after one quarter, much to the delight of their fans, who traveled to Minneapolis to be part of the sold-out crowd.

UConn (30-6) trailed by 16 in the second quarter before Bueckers, a Minnesota native, got going. After only one shot in the first quarter, she scored nine points in the second to put the Huskies 35-27 at halftime. She graduated at 14.

An 8-2 run early in the third quarter gave South Carolina a 43-29 lead before the Huskies finally started connecting behind the arc. UConn missed their first eight 3-point attempts until Caroline Ducharme made one from the wing and Evina Westbrook followed up with another to put the Huskies within 43-37.


They couldn’t get that close because of Henderson.

The senior guard had a three-point game to end the third quarter and then had the team’s first four points in the fourth to restore the double-digit lead. The huskies could not recover.

“My teammates believed in me again. We’ve been working so hard since Day 1, and it’s finally paying off, all my hard work, all my focus,” Henderson said. “I trust the process. i trust god She just put me in a position to just be great, and today we’re national champions.”

This was UConn’s first trip to the championship game since 2016, when the Huskies won the last of four straight titles. Since then, the team has endured heartbreaking defeats in the national semifinals, losing twice in overtime before taking on Stanford on Friday night. The Huskies were attempting to win their 12th title in the same city where they won their first in 1995.

Auriemma said Saturday the Huskies went into the game as the better team after his team had won each of their 11 titles. They certainly weren’t on Sunday.


“We just didn’t have enough,” he said. “They were just too good for us.”

It had been one of the most challenging seasons of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn overcame the loss of eight players for at least two games through injury or illness, including Bueckers, who was absent for nearly three months from a left knee injury sustained in early December. She came back in late February but wasn’t at the level that got her AP Player of the Year last season as a freshman.


The Gamecocks have been steadfast defenders all season, finishing third nationally with 50.5 allowable points per game. At the NCAA tournament, they were even better, keeping their opponents at 44.8 points ahead of Sunday’s finals.

Henderson had three steals, Boston had two blocks and South Carolina forced 15 turnovers. The Gamecocks’ plus-25 rebound margin was the second-largest ever in a title game.



UConn: The Huskies lose three seniors in Christyn Williams, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa but still have a solid group led by Bueckers and rookie Azzi Fudd. If the Huskies stay healthy, they have a good shot at contending for next year’s title.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose Henderson and Victaria Saxton but have all the talent to repeat themselves as champions.


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Dais Johnston

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