On Monday night, the UConn women’s hoops team welcomes the No. 6 South Carolina Gamecocks to Gampel Pavilion in what will likely be their final challenge of the regular season.
Last season, the Huskies dispatched then-No. 2 USC fairly comfortably on the road, 66-54 in UConn’s fourth win over South Carolina in four all-time meetings. But these two teams will have a very different look from that game.
UConn’s losses from last year’s roster are well-documented. Their all-world trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck graduated as the most successful class in NCAA history. Despite going into the season with a lot of question marks about who would replace that production and star power, the Huskies once again come into this match-up undefeated as the No. 1 team in the nation.
South Carolina lost its starting guard combo of Tiffany Mitchell, a second-team All-American and the No. 9 pick in the WNBA draft, and Tina Roy, a deadly sharpshooter.
“I think losing some of their perimeter players obviously changes them,” Geno Auriemma said. “Because you can’t replace the kind of experience they lost or even Tiffany Mitchell's talent.”
The Gamecocks brought in the 11th-ranked recruiting class and the additions allow South Carolina to be more versatile offensively.
“(It) changes them,” said Auriemma. “They can be more offensive minded from more spots than they were last year.”
The biggest challenge for UConn will be defending the Gamecocks down low. They hold a clear height advantage over the Huskies and have two premier post players. A’ja Wilson (6-foot-5) leads the team with 17.0 ppg and 46 blocks on the season while Alaina Coates (6-foot-4) averages a double-double with 14.0 ppg and 11.5 rebounds per game.
“They’re a problem for everybody they play,” Auriemma continued. “There’s not very many teams in the country that have two players like that that you have to deal with. I wasn’t worried about it last year with Stewie and Tuck. I’m worried about it now.”
While the two players are a handful, UConn’s post players Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams won’t be on their own. The Huskies will likely double-team the ball when it enters the post, similar to their strategy against Baylor in November.
“She’s a really good player,” said Collier about A’ja Wilson. “She’s tall and physically but she can also go out on the perimeter and play so that’s going to be a challenge.”
The X-factor in this game for the Huskies will be Natalie Butler. The junior center won’t make the big, flashy plays her teammates do, but she’s been a consistent post presence off the bench and could prove to be very helpful against South Carolina’s low-post duo.
“Sometimes it’s a really bad match-up for her against certain teams so that limits what she can do,” Auriemma explained before the Tulsa game. “We would love to get 20 minutes out of Nat every night and get six, seven, eight rebounds and whatever baskets she’s able to get. But those are predicated on match-ups.”
With South Carolina’s bigs, Butler will certainly have an opportunity to make an impact. If she can rebound and defend well, it will go a long way towards helping out with Wilson and Coates.
This will be the final big test of the season until at least the Sweet Sixteen for UConn, who has plowed through the American Athletic Conference slate as expected. Although UConn has defeated eight ranked teams, none of that matters on Monday night. It’s likely to be a battle for all forty minutes against a motivated visitor. The Huskies will need to be on their A-game to come away with their 100th-straight win.
Check out the latest edition of the Husky Hoop Scoop, where we discuss the women’s basketball season up to this point and preview South Carolina: