By Meghan Rominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS — Before she carried the national championship trophy to the makeshift stage at center court, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley made a pit stop. She wanted the South Carolina pep band members to pass it around and take pictures with it first.
Across the court, Gamecocks superstar forward Aliyah Boston, who was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, was grabbing cellphones from fans and taking selfies with them. Clearly, celebrations in the spotlight could wait.
For the 2021-22 season, South Carolina powered its run through the theme of “Net Worth”: the idea that that every single member of the Gamecocks’ program – players, coaches, trainers and fans – plays a role in cutting down the nets at the end of the season. Through a balanced team effort and the fuel of family, South Carolina defeated the University of Connecticut 64-49 to claim the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship on Sunday night at the sold-out Target Center.
“It was divinely ordered for us to be champions today. We weren’t going to be denied, we were going to play every possession like it was our last possession,” Staley told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game. “I know our players are super exhausted, but they were determined to be champions today.”
Against the odds but playing for each other, the Gamecocks made history on Sunday night, handing UConn its first-ever loss in a national championship game. The Huskies are now 11-1 all time in the title game and 9-3 all time against South Carolina.
South Carolina is now 2-0 in national championship games, winning its first in 2017, also with Staley. She is now the first Black head coach in men’s or women’s NCAA Division I history to win multiple national championships.
South Carolina was buttressed by a breakout night from senior guard Destanni Henderson, who led all players with a career-high 26 points on 9-of-20 shooting. Henderson added four assists and three steals, and she joined Boston and junior guard Zia Cooke on the Women’s NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team.
“I felt like my teammates put me in a good position to score the basketball,” Henderson said of her career night. “I found open gaps and when they collapsed in the paint, Aliyah or whoever it was that was passing the ball just found me out on the perimeter, and I just let it fly.”
But every South Carolina player stepped up to the challenge Sunday night – even those who didn’t make a significant splash on the court.
As South Carolina players and Staley crowded around the championship trophy at center court, Staley acknowledged the “Net Worth” mentality that carried the Gamecocks through the finish line.
“Our team had the fight of champions all season long, and I have to give a shout out to our players who don’t get into the game a whole lot,” Staley told ESPN’s Rowe. “We have 16 players. Seven or eight of them prepared us for UConn, prepared us for Louisville, prepared us for Creighton and they don’t get the shine. But I’ll give them the shine right now.”
It was clear from tipoff the Gamecocks came ready to play. They held UConn to eight points in the first quarter – its lowest first-quarter total this season – and prevented a single Husky from scoring in double digits through the first half.
In contrast, South Carolina entered halftime with a lead through a balanced effort.
Eight out of the 10 Gamecocks who played in the first half had scored, and the team outrebounded UConn 25-13.
“The first five minutes I thought they came out and set the tone right then and there for how the game was going to be played,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said after the game. “We were pretty much even the rest of the time, gave ourselves a chance, cut it to five, but we just didn’t have enough. I’m proud of our guys just to get here, just to be in this situation, it’s just tonight we just didn’t have enough. They were just too good for us.”
In the third quarter, UConn clawed its way back to within six points after a 10-0 run over a roughly five-minute period. But the Gamecocks wouldn’t be denied their history-making night, holding UConn to only 22 points in the second half.
“I don’t think from the beginning of the game our offense ever looked like it was in any kind of rhythm, any kind of flow,” Auriemma said.
“Their guards completely, I thought, dominated the game on the perimeter and made it really difficult for any of our guys to get any good looks.”
South Carolina finishes the year 14-0 against ranked opponents, with 10 of those wins coming against teams ranked in the top 15 in the AP poll at the time of the game.
Though Boston was slightly hampered by double- and triple-teams throughout the night, she recorded her 30th double-double of the season in Sunday’s win, finishing with 11 points and 16 rebounds. Boston is the first-ever player on the national championship winning team to average 15 points and 15 rebounds in the tournament, finishing her championship campaign averaging 15.2 rebounds and 16.8 points on 53% shooting.
“It’s very satisfying, this goal coming into school winning a national championship,” Boston said of the moment after the game. “Last year we fell short and it’s not something we can continue to hold on to, but I guess you could say now it’s in the back of our mind because we have a National Championship to hold on to.”
For Staley and the Gamecocks, the path to that coveted national championship was divinely ordered. But the destination was captured through family.