By Avery Wilks
The South Carolina women’s basketball team has focused all season on taking it one game at a time, even with the inevitable road showdown at perennial powerhouse UConn looming on the calendar.
Now the No. 1 Gamecocks, who improved to 22-0 on Wednesday night with a blowout over No. 22 Georgia, can finally turn their attention to the No. 2 Huskies, who are 21-1 on the season and haven’t lost since Nov. 17.
“This is what women’s basketball is all about,” said senior forward Aleighsa Welch, who like many of her teammates grew up watching UConn dominate the national college basketball scene. “I think everybody can say they’ve wanted to be in a matchup like this, No. 1 vs. No. 2.”
Freshman guard Bianca Cuevas said she’s always loved watching UConn play. “I had a couple of teammates who went to UConn,” she said. “I used to really look up to a lot of their players when I was younger.”
The Gamecocks have been ranked No. 1 for 11 straight weeks while building their longest winning streak and best start to a season in program history. But USC hasn’t faced an opponent quite like the Huskies, who, in addition to leading the country in most relevant statistics, have won each of the past two national championships, four of the past six and eight of the past 15.
The game will be played in front of a sellout crowd at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut, another factor making the Gamecocks’ challenge – or opportunity, as they see it – on Monday night even tougher.
USC coach Dawn Staley said on Friday that UConn’s talent is “off the chart” and that the Gamecocks would need to play with “relentless effort” to beat the Huskies.
“They’re ready. I think they’re pretty focused,” Staley said of her team. “It’s a long time coming. I think a lot of people have been anticipating this moment.”
But even in the face of the toughest test of the season, which doubles as a chance for USC to cement its legitimacy as the nation’s No. 1 team, Staley stressed that the Gamecocks can’t change their approach, one that’s hinged on prolific defense.
“You don’t do anything differently,” Staley said, acknowledging that the Gamecocks would probably get a “bump of adrenaline” because of what’s at stake. “For us, we have to stay in character and do what we do. The closer we stay to what we’ve been looking like for the 22 wins in that environment, the better off we’re going to be.
Welch, who since her freshman year has been an instrumental part of Staley’s turnaround of the women’s basketball program, echoed her coach’s thoughts.
Welch said the Gamecocks can’t be concerned with trying to prove doubters wrong on a national stage.
“It’s not a game about proving ourselves,” Welch said. “It’s a game about us. It’s about making sure we come out and execute our game plan. When you get too caught up in, ‘Well, we have to make this a statement game,’ I feel like that’s when you kind of stumble a little bit.”
In the midst of a grueling SEC schedule in which the Gamecocks have already beaten three ranked teams and have three more left to play, it shouldn’t be difficult to treat this marquee matchup like any other game, Staley said.
“It’s just going to boil down to us staying in character,”[SJ1] Staley said. “We’ve got to defend. They’re a team that scores a lot of points, and they’re efficient scoring those points. We’re a team that doesn’t allow you to score a lot of points. We don’t give up easy baskets.
“I think we both have to impose our will on the game.”
USC’s top-ranked women’s basketball team will face No. 2 UConn on Monday night.
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut
How to watch: ESPN2, WatchESPN
How to listen: 1320 The Fan, 107.5 The Game
Source: USC athletics department