By Meghan Rominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS — On Tuesday afternoon, before South Carolina’s Final Four semifinal matchup with Louisville, head coach Dawn Staley told the media she wanted to be remembered as an “odds beater.” On Sunday night, she and the Gamecocks will have 40 minutes to officially secure that title.
After a dominant win against the Louisville Cardinals in Friday’s national semifinal, the South Carolina Gamecocks (34-2) will face the University of Connecticut Huskies (30-5) for the national championship on Sunday night at the Target Center. South Carolina will be making its second national championship appearance in program history – both with Staley at the helm – while UConn will battle for its 12th national title.
“It comes down to UConn has had the most experience, so it doesn’t faze them to be where they are,” Staley said Saturday in a pregame press conference.
“I think we’re going to duke it out. There’s no edge. There’s no edge.”
Already, talk has turned to UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s dominance on the biggest stage. Under Auriemma, UConn is the winningest program in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament with a record of 130-21. Auriemma’s Huskies are 11-0 in national championship games, and have now defeated No. 1 seed North Carolina State and No. 1 seed Stanford so far this tournament.
Statistically speaking, the Gamecocks and Huskies are somewhat evenly matched in terms of offensive and defensive advantages. The Gamecocks lead UConn in several defensive categories like scoring defense (50.7 to 54.7), field goal percentage defense (33.0 to 35.6), rebounding margin (+17.5 to +7.3) and blocks per game (7.5 to 4.6). The Huskies have fared better this season in offensive categories like points per game (74.5 to 71.1), field goal percentage (47.9 to 42.8) and 3-point field goals per game (6.9 to 4.9).
“We can talk about the numbers, but the numbers give them no edge. The numbers aren’t going to give us an edge,” Staley said Friday of the looming challenge. “Our season, the great season that we’ve had, it’s not going to give us an edge tomorrow. We’ve got to play it.”
But there’s precedent that proves South Carolina can successfully play David to UConn’s Goliath. Earlier this year, No. 1 South Carolina defeated then-No. 2 UConn 73-57 at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The Gamecocks and Huskies were scheduled to play a rematch in January, but the game was cancelled due to South Carolina’s SEC schedule.
Both the Gamecocks and Huskies have undergone mental and physical transformations since then, though, a factor that prevents either coach from using November’s contest to provide much insight.
“The Bahamas game was eons ago,” Staley said.
“We’re going to watch it a little bit because I liked how we were defending, and we can compare what it looks like from back in November to what it looks like now.”
For Auriemma, his past tournament experience and dominance in the national championship spotlight is irrelevant. While his leadership has obviously been an important factor in UConn’s ascent, Auriemma is entering Sunday’s game with the past completely in the rearview mirror.
“I don’t think I’ve won one national championship, and I don’t think Dawn is going to win any either,” Auriemma said Saturday.
“I feel like once this game starts, once you get to tipoff, you kind of relinquish about 80% of the control to the players. And they now have the ability to win it or they don’t. And you can coach the best game of your life and lose.”
Sunday’s championship game will undoubtedly be a steep hill for Staley and the Gamecocks to climb. But with her incisive coaching mind, talented roster and devoted fanbase, Staley likes her chances at breaking UConn’s historical streak – and making some history of her own.
“I say what we said all season long: Our history over their history,” Staley said.
“We need to choose our history. We want to imprint our history in the basketball history books.”