The first 15 minutes of South Carolina's championship-clinching win over UConn on Sunday night turned out to be the most crucial. While the Huskies avoided getting blown out by dint of a run they put together in the middle portion of the game, the Gamecocks had a sufficient margin for error because of the tremendous, hard-nosed start they enjoyed in this title game.
SC jumped out to the early advantage—leading 22-8 after the first quarter—and they kept closing the door on UConn by playing to their greatest strength: their rebounding. The third-best team on the glass in the entire country this year deluged the Huskies with second-chance points, building a lead not with the prettiest of offensive possessions, but with sheer tenacity, size, and positioning down low. Here are a few of those moments from the first 15. They're kind of ugly, but they're worth just as much as any cleanly executed fast break.
By the time UConn got their very first offensive rebound of the game, halfway through the second quarter, South Carolina had already scored 16 second-chance points on a ridiculous 13 offensive boards of their own. The score, at that point, was 32-19—the game was more or less decided by then, since the teams played each other almost evenly over the rest of the night.
While the Gamecocks' star forward Aliyah Boston grabbed 16 boards as part of her double-double, and got four of the offensive rebounds in that first 15-minute stretch, this was a team effort from SC; four of Boston's teammates also snagged missed shots on the offensive end in that same time frame. And though UConn on paper wasn't giving up a ton of size to their opponents, their bigs were made into a non-factor, as even the 6-foot-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa could only pick up two measly rebounds in the entire game after averaging 7.5 on the year.
“We knew that was going to be the deciding factor,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said about rebounding, after the game. “We said in the Stanford game the reason we won is because we out-rebounded them and we made our free throws when they counted. We knew tonight that if we didn't hold our own on the boards that it was going to be a really bad night for us, and that's exactly what happened.”
In contrast, UConn didn't manage to impose any of their own strengths on the South Carolina defense, as they shot just 40.7 percent from the field and went 4-of-16 from beyond the arc. Their 49 points were the fewest in any UConn game since 2012, and their second-fewest ever in the NCAA Tournament. And while the Gamecocks were even less accurate from the field, their ability to hit their free throws in the fourth, coupled with that power on the blocks, was more than enough to put them over the top. Sometimes the difference in a game is just as simple as who can get their hands on the ball when it's up for grabs.