By Michael Harley
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS- Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma was not particularly pleased with his team’s performance against Stanford on Friday night, but he is not taking the opportunity to compete for a national championship for granted.
“Well, you get to the Final Four, it’s not easy to win either game,” Auriemma said following the Huskies’ win over Stanford. “Sometimes you don’t have to be the best team to win this game either. Sometimes you just have to play the best that night.”
UConn (30-5) heads into the championship game Sunday night with the daunting task of trying to take down the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks (34-2). South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was named National Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, Naismith and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Junior forward Aliyah Boston became the National Player of the Year by the WBCA, Associated Press and USBWA. The two teams met back on Nov. 22 in the Bahamas, with the Gamecocks coming out on top in a convincing 73-57 win.
Boston was dominant in that game scoring 22 points and collecting 15 rebounds. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that she might be the hardest person in America to guard,” Auriemma said, referring to Boston. “She scores if there’s one, two, three, four people on her.”
UConn senior guard Christyn Williams remembers that earlier game against South Carolina and plans to draw from that experience on Sunday night. “We watched film on that game today, actually. You can always learn from previous games,” Williams said on Saturday. “But we know it’s going to be a dogfight tomorrow. And we played an athletic, long team yesterday, so we know we’re capable.”
While this will be UConn’s 12th appearance in the championship game and only South Carolina’s second, the Gamecocks enter the contest as the prohibitive favorites. Having suffered only two losses on the season by a combined three points, the Gamecocks enter the title game with confidence, coming off a relatively comfortable win over Louisville in the national semifinals.
Boston lived up to the billing in the Gamecocks’ win over the Cardinals on Friday night. She scored a team-high 23 points to go along with her 18 rebounds and four assists. The Huskies will depend on their frontcourt tandem of senior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa and sophomore forward Aaliyah Edwards to try to slow down Boston.
Since taking over South Carolina’s program in 2008, Staley has built a national powerhouse. While she has confidence in her team heading into Sunday’s championship, Staley credits UConn as one of the contributing factors in her program’s success. “I think a lot of what we’re able to do and get is off the backs of their success. I think the people up at UConn treat their women’s basketball team as a sport,” Staley said. “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.”
The return of sophomore guard Paige Bueckers to the UConn lineup has elevated the Huskies play to a championship level again. Bueckers missed 19 games this season due to a left knee injury, but appears to be returning to form at just the right time for her team. In her team’s semifinal win over Stanford, she led with a team-high 14 points and five assists. Her leadership qualities will be critical if the underdog Huskies expect to pull off the upset over the Gamecocks on Sunday night. Winning a national championship in her home state of Minnesota after returning from a serious injury would be a fairytale ending to a season.