How to watch
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
When: Monday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m.
TV: Fox Sports 1 (FS1)
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network
South Carolina Gamecocks
Record: 15-1 (10-0 SEC)
Location: Columbia South Carolina
Head coach: Dawn Staley (13th season)
UConn women’s basketball will face its biggest test of the season so far when it hosts the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks at Gampel Pavilion. The Gamecocks secured their first-ever win over UConn last season, 70-52. The Huskies will look to avenge that loss Monday night.
South Carolina boasts one of, if not the best resume in women’s college basketball this season. Its one loss came in early-December to N.C. State. The Gamecocks are also an impressive 10-0 in SEC play so far and in firm possession of the top spot in the league, which has seven teams ranked in the AP Top 25.
The focal point of this game will be in the post, particularly the matchup between Aliyah Boston and Olivia Nelson-Ododa — both of whom were named to the top-10 watchlist for the Lisa Leslie Award, which goes to the best center in the country.
Boston is South Carolina’s go-to player on both ends of the court, averaging a double-double with 13.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. She’ll likely be the toughest matchup Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards face all season.
“It’s a lot for Liv but she’s ready,” head coach Geno Auriemma said of Nelson-Ododa’s role Monday night. “I think this is a good time for her. I think she’s in a pretty good place right now. Her game is in a really good place at this point.”
Nelson-Ododa has struggled in the Huskies’ other big games against Tennessee and Arkansas but is coming off a solid performance at Marquette where she scored eight points with eight rebounds and seven assists in one of UConn’s most complete performances of the season. The Huskies will need a similar outing from her Monday night.
Edwards will also be a critical part of the frontcourt matchup for UConn and her physicality inside should be advantageous for the Huskies against an elite center. Edwards can provide size if Nelson-Ododa is in foul trouble — an option UConn did not have last season. Playing her alongside Nelson-Ododa also allows the Huskies to play big and run more offense through the post.
“Aaliyah is going to have to keep our offense flowing,” Auriemma said of his expectations for the freshman. “We use her a lot to facilitate in our offense.”
Edwards looks ready for a critical role on the offensive end is something after excelling in her last few games. In UConn’s last three outings, she averaged over 14 points per game on 78 percent shooting from the floor.
While the frontcourt battle will take center stage, the backcourt matchups shouldn’t be ignored. South Carolina features a pair of elite guards in Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson. Cooke leads the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game and is also the Gamecocks’ biggest threat from deep, shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc this season.
Henderson is South Carolina’s best facilitator with 5.9 assists per game. She also excels at getting to the line and has put up over 20 points in a few games this season, including against tough opponents like Gonzaga and Kentucky.
Cooke and Henderson will present a big challenge for UConn’s defense which has struggled to contain top guards this season (look no further than Chelsea Dungee’s 37 point performance in the loss at Arkansas).
Between Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook, the Huskies shouldn’t have much trouble getting things going on offense. But if they can’t slow down South Carolina’s guards, even Bueckers’ hot shooting might not be enough to bail them out.
UConn’s keys to the game
Avoid a slow start: In last year’s game, UConn’s fate was sealed when it got out to a historically slow start and scored just two points in the first quarter. Slow starts have plagued the Huskies all season long. If they can another one on Monday, they can play their game instead of trying dig themselves out of a hole.
Interior defense: Zia Cooke is the only Gamecock that averages more than one make from deep per game. While UConn needs to avoid leaving her open on the outside, the interior defense will make or break the game. South Carolina will look to score the majority of its points in the paint and around the basket, which means the Huskies will need to limit the visitors’ opportunities on the inside.
Rebound, rebound, rebound: South Carolina is elite on the glass, ranking first in the country in defensive rebounds per game and fifth in offensive rebounds per game, per Her Hoop Stats. UConn struggled on the defensive boards in the first quarter of Friday’s game against Marquette and will need to avoid a similar pitfall on Monday.
Build on Friday’s performance: UConn strung together a strong performance on both ends of the floor against Marquette. If the Huskies can continue building on the defense and ball movement they displayed Friday, they’ll put themselves in a great position to come away with the win.