While the UConn team that arrived in Minneapolis was very different than the one that played in the Bahamas, the Huskies still came up short against South Carolina on Sunday night. Despite all the progress this UConn team made throughout the season, the Gamecocks were still the better team in Minneapolis, and the Huskies fell in a manner very similar to their first loss of the season back in November.
In the Battle 4 Atlantis, it was the final quarter of the game that cost UConn the win. The Huskies hung around with the Gamecocks for the first three quarters, even taking a lead into halftime. However, a disastrous fourth quarter where UConn could not buy a basket and struggled to get key rebounds left South Carolina with the convincing win.
On Sunday night, the story was the same. However, this time around it was a first quarter in Minneapolis that was eerily similar to that fourth quarter in the Bahamas which ultimately cost UConn the title. UConn only scored eight points in the first 10 minutes, and while that was better than the three points they scored in the fourth earlier this season, it still put the Huskies into a considerable hole.
While the Huskies unraveled on the offensive end early on, South Carolina was able to execute on the other end thanks in a large part to their effort on the offensive glass. Nine of the Gamecocks’ 22 first quarter points, which opened up a 14-point lead for South Carolina, came on second chance opportunities.
The rebounding issues weren’t isolated to the first quarter alone, just as they weren’t isolated to the fourth quarter in the earlier matchup. UConn’s two worst performances on the defensive glass this season came against South Carolina. They rebounded just 46 percent of the Gamecocks’ misses on Sunday, and 50 percent back in November. While South Carolina is the best rebounding team in the country, UConn allowed them to exceed their season average on the offensive glass on both occasions.
Ultimately, the failure to hold their own on the glass was a common thread on the season. Four of UConn’s six losses on the season came when they rebounded less than two-thirds of their opponents’ misses and afforded them too many second chance opportunities. The Huskies’ title game performance on the glass is also the opposite of what got them to the national championship game, as their defensive rebounding carried the team against Indiana, NC State and Stanford.
South Carolina’s guards also excelled in both matchups against UConn, despite inconsistencies throughout the season. Some of that likely comes as a result of everyone bringing their best game against UConn, especially in a national championship game. However, back in November the Huskies’ defense was no where near the level it reached towards the end of the season, which created room for Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke to be successful. Again on Sunday, it felt like the defensive energy that UConn brought consistently down the stretch evaded them at times, and Henderson was able to capitalize on it.
With South Carolina’s guards both executing offensively, UConn needed the firepower on the other end to answer and both times they came up short. Against the length of South Carolina’s, knocking down shots from the perimeter is often the best way to keep up. It doesn’t help that Azzi Fudd, the Huskies’ best perimeter shooter, was mostly a non-factor in both games as the freshman battled a foot injury in November and an illness that kept her from shoot around and from looking like herself on the floor on Sunday.
Fudd aside, what is promising for the Huskies is the players that stepped up. With the seniors, aside from Evina Westbrook, not contributing much on the court Sunday, UConn’s depth wasn’t on display as it has been in the post-season. However, Caroline Ducharme contributed and was +6 in the game for UConn, Nika Muhl found ways to contribute on the defensive end and Aaliyah Edwards scored clutch baskets despite struggling on the glass. Even Amari DeBerry was able to come in and hold her own briefly when UConn needed to give senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa a break due to foul trouble.
With those pieces all returning for the Huskies alongside Paige Bueckers and Fudd, UConn will have a chance to flip the page on this season’s outcomes against the Gamecocks next year.