There were only a couple moments in Sunday’s national championship game in which it seemed even remotely possible that No. 2 UConn would mount a comeback against top-seeded South Carolina, and those moments did not last very long. Thanks to their typically dominant rebounding, oppressive defense, and standout games from junior Aliyah Boston and senior Destanni Henderson, South Carolina became national champions with a wire-to-wire victory, 64-49.
The Gamecocks jumped to an early lead, and led by as many as 18 points in the second period. UConn cut that lead to single digits at halftime, only to see South Carolina shut them down, holding them to only two points for most of the third period. An eight-point run at the end of the third brought the Huskies within striking distance again, before South Carolina’s Henderson zoomed away, scoring 10 of her career-high 26 points in the fourth quarter.
Even when UConn managed to string together a few decent possessions, it never felt like they were a real threat to the Gamecocks’ title chances. If you were tasked with creating a guide for how to demoralize your opponents and leave them absolutely juiceless, it would look a lot like what South Carolina did to UConn last night. From the opening tip to the final whistle, the Gamecocks played with a physicality that the Huskies just couldn’t match, and as a result South Carolina finished the game with 21 offensive rebounds; UConn had six total. Boston, whose 11 points and 16 rebounds marked her 30th double double of the season, was a smothering defensive presence, an immovable force who was also absolutely everywhere.
Meanwhile, UConn star point guard Paige Bueckers spent the game in hell. Bueckers’s playmaking and finishing is supposed to be the engine that drives UConn’s offense, but she spent the game getting throttled by swarms of South Carolina defenders who were too big and too fast for Bueckers to deal with. Through most of the game, her only options were dribbling into tough pull-up jumpers or meekly passing the ball off to a teammate on the perimeter after seeing yet another one of her attempts to create offense shut down by South Carolina’s defense. Bueckers managed to score 14 points thanks to her ability to hit tough shots, but she was the only player on the team to finish the game with double digits in scoring.
Bueckers was completely outshone by Henderson, who became the first player since 2000 to set her career-high scoring mark in the championship game. Where Bueckers found only walls of limbs and bodies, Henderson found spaces to slither and dart through as she carved up UConn’s defense. Boston’s brawn and Henderson’s speed were just too much for UConn to deal with, and if there’s one play that sums up how the game went, it’s this one, in which both Boston and Henderson combined extend the lead back to double digits in the fourth quarter:
With this loss, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma lost his perfect 11-0 record in championship games. A storied program like UConn getting toppled in a game their coach had never previously failed to win is quite a meaningful note to end the season on, and yet that all feels like a secondary storyline to South Carolina’s dominance. The most complimentary thing you can say about South Carolina’s victory is that there was nothing surprising or even all that dramatic about how it unfolded. There was just a great team beating up on an inferior opponent for 40 minutes, and then at the end they got to dance around in the confetti and claim a title.