Auriemma, who has led Connecticut to 11 titles, had stood still with his arms crossed for several minutes. He was so stiff you couldn’t even tell he was breathing. He wasn’t stunned; it was more like resigned. For the first time, he stared out onto a championship court, saw a dominant team in unfamiliar colors and could only bow to South Carolina’s greatness.
As Auriemma embraced Staley, the clock hit zero and the confetti flurries began, signifying that the baddest women’s team in the sport this season had usurped the great Connecticut dynasty with a 64-49 victory Sunday night before 18,304 at Target Center.
“They were the best team all year,” Auriemma said, repeating what he told Staley as they hugged. “When you’re dealing with that all year long, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. They did a magnificent job managing all that and the expectations that go with that.”
Said Staley: “We weren’t going to be denied.”
It’s premature to consider this a torch-passing event. However, South Carolina yanked something away from Connecticut on this night. The Huskies, who endured a snakebit season full of injuries, retreated like they haven’t since they became a supernova program. They didn’t take the lead the entire game. They were tied for only the first 22 seconds. The Gamecocks scored first, and for the next 39:38, they pounded the most acclaimed team in the sport. They led 22-8 after the first quarter, and Connecticut was playing catch-up the rest of the way. While the Huskies made a few runs and capitalized several South Carolina scoring droughts, it never felt as if the Huskies had a chance.
“They were just too good for us,” Auriemma said.
South Carolina point guard Destanni Henderson danced around the court and scored a game-high 26 points. Aliyah Boston, the national player of the year and the tournament’s most outstanding player, had 11 points and 16 rebounds. Paige Bueckers, who had 14, was the only U-Conn. player who scored in double figures. The Gamecocks had almost as many offensive boards (21) as the Huskies had total rebounds. As a result, they scored 22 second-chance points while limiting Connecticut to five. At times, it looked unfair.
It feels like a seminal moment in the sport’s hierarchy. Since the end of Pat Summitt’s run at Tennessee, Connecticut has dominated without a peer that could truly trade punches with the Huskies over a long period of time. In truth, even Tennessee strained to keep pace, and it’s astounding because Summitt won five of her eight national titles after Connecticut began its championship hoarding in 1995. In the past 27 years, plenty of other elite teams have emerged and been able to smuggle some moments. But the Huskies have kept most of them from enjoying long reigns. Their dynasty, overpowering and unfathomable, grates on others’ greatness.
For all the past talk about Connecticut’s dominance being bad for the game, the Huskies actually have elevated the sport because the standard for winning a championship is higher than it has ever been. At the same time, like any wicked good ruler, they have kept other great programs from maximizing their excellence.
Connecticut didn’t just enter Sunday night perfect in 11 championship games. They were unbeaten despite facing some of the best of the best. Summitt would have been the first college basketball coach since John Wooden to win double-digit titles, but the Lady Volunteers lost four times to Connecticut in championship games. Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw, another bitter rival of Auriemma, won two titles in her Hall of Fame career but lost in the final game twice to Connecticut. The Huskies turned back Stanford and Tara VanDerveer, owner of three championship rings, once. Louisville Coach Jeff Walz has built a top-five program, but he’s still looking to cut down the nets partly because the Huskies have defeated the Cardinals two times on the last night of the season.
“Unfortunately for us, both of those U-Conn. teams would probably be ranked in the top five of all women’s basketball teams ever,” Walz said. “We just had a sucky year to have to play them.”
There are several elite teams, and access to that level is less exclusive than it used to be as parity builds in the sport. But there is one superpower, and worthy challengers have had to face that reality again and again.
Except for South Carolina.
Before the title game, Staley responded to questions referencing the Huskies’ 11-0 title-game record by joking, “We’re 1-0, so we’re 100 percent, too.”
Make it 2-0, with both triumphs coming in the past five years. That makes the Gamecocks (35-2) the most successful team in the game over that span. In tearing apart Connecticut, they completed a season in which they went wire to wire as the nation’s No. 1 team.
“Our team had the fight of championships all season long,” Staley said. “All season long.”
She called the victory “divinely ordered.” South Carolina never backed down from the pressure of being expected to win. Staley looked at Connecticut and saw possibility, not a team to be feared. And for now, even if it lasts a short time, Staley’s program is the new standard in women’s college basketball.
“I think a lot of what we’re able to do and get is off the backs of their success,” Staley said in appreciation of Connecticut. “I think the people up at U-Conn. treat their women’s basketball team as a sport. They’re forced to because of all the winning and all the success, but you could take a page out of their book.
“If you invest in it, you could end up having similar success. Actually, not even similar success. Just you could actually scratch the surface and have some success.”
The surface has been scratched. Now, with two titles in five years and two No. 1 recruiting classes on this roster, South Carolina has a chance to go higher. Asked about the goal for next season, Boston was simple and direct: “Same as this year.” After watching the Gamecocks on Sunday night, one thing about them is even clearer: They won’t be afraid of greatness. They’re chasing greater. They’re grating on the Connecticut dynasty now.