Tonight’s match-up that pits #6 South Carolina against #1 UConn may turn on how successfully the Gamecocks can withstand the Huskies’ pressure defense. UConn is looking to win its 100th game in a row, so you can be sure that the defensive jets will be turned all the way up from the opening tipoff. But UConn’s job will be made tougher by South Carolina’s post players, 2016 Wade Award finalists A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates. Together they are pulling down 18 rebounds a game and scoring 21 points per game on shooting percentages of 58 and 67% respectively. If South Carolina’s threesome of guards, freshman Tyasha Harris, Kaela Davis, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore can limit their turnovers and get the ball inside to Wilson and Coates, fans could be in for an entertaining game of basketball. (which ESPN2 will carry live at 9 p.m.)
Last week, UConn coach Geno Auriemma admitted to the Hartford Courant that “their two big guys are a problem to play against,” and he adds that his team is “not where I want us to be” at this point in the season. But that kind of talk is probably just Geno being Geno. In sophomore Katie Samuelson, Auriemma has a player who is averaging 21 points per game and who reminds ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo of Elena Delle Donne. Along with sophomore Napheesa Collier and juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, Geno has four players with as much ice water in their veins as last year’s big three did (seniors Brianna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson). No one expected last year’s streak to continue this season, but last year’s “bench” has stepped up in a big way to get the Huskies to this historic milestone.
ESPN analyst Doris Burke says South Carolina, 21-2 so far this year, needs to be “rock solid” against UConn’s pressure. She also thinks the game might turn on the play of junior Allisha Gray, a shooting guard who has also played point guard and power forward this season. She’s leading the team in steals, is second in assists and third in rebounds. “They have the pieces and the depth…” Burke said during LaChina Robinson’s Around the Rim podcast on ESPN. “They need game plan discipline.”
As for that game plan, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says she’s devised a plan that she hopes will limit turnovers and take the Huskies out of their own game plan. “We’ve got some things in place that we can go to if they take our first and second options away,” she told USC’s “The State” last week. “We need to stay in character, stay organized, and communicate.”
Whoever wins, women’s basketball fans are hoping for a competitive contest. To that end, South Carolina should fare better than it did against the Huskies last year. In that game, won by UConn 66-54, Breanna Stewart scored 25 points and A’ja Wilson left with an injury in the second quarter. By the time she returned late in the third quarter, UConn was on cruise control.
In the not-so-fast department: If UConn does make it to 100 tonight, they’ll still have to win 32 more in a row to be proclaimed the most dominant women’s collegiate basketball team of all time. The Wayland Baptist Flying Queens of Plainview, Texas hold the all-time collegiate record for the longest winning streak at 131 games from 1950-1957. College basketball wasn’t as competitive back then—and the NCAA certainly doesn’t acknowledge its existence—but the Flying Queens traveled across the country and down to Mexico during the ’50s to play the most dominant company teams and collegiate programs of the era. As detailed in “On the Road” a chapter from Finding a Way to Play, the Flying Queens won four national championships during those years.