The last two national champions in women’s college basketball will meet Monday night in Albany with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
You could say the regional final at the Times Union Center has been a year in the making. Last March, UConn was stunned in its pursuit of a fifth straight national championship by Mississippi State in the Final Four. That ended a 111-game winning streak. South Carolina took advantage of the rare Huskie-less title game, and won its first NCAA Tournament title.
Gamecocks fans hope that was just the start.
Saturday in Albany, second-seeded South Carolina ended 11th-seeded Buffalo’s Cinderella run by grinding out a 79-63 win, and No. 1 overall seed UConn remained unbeaten, 72-59 over fifth-seeded Duke.
As usual, the women’s hoops world revolves around UConn. Coach Geno Auriemma is seeking his 12th national championship and 11th straight Final Four.
Senior guard Kia Nurse says the Huskies are just taking it one game at a time.
“I think we’re excited. You can never take any win within this tournament for granted,” she said. “You never know which one is going to be your last one, and as a senior, they’re all your last one.”
Earlier in the tourney, UConn knocked off in-state foe Quinnipiac by 25 points after a 140-52 win over St. Francis in the first round.
The regional final is a rematch of a February 1 road 83-58 win by UConn — one of just six losses for the Gamecocks on the season.
If UConn is the A-lister, South Carolina deserves its share of the klieg lights. In the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight year, the Gamecocks boast probably the nation’s best player. Senior A’Ja Wilson is a three-time conference player of the year and is projected as a top pick in the upcoming WNBA draft. South Carolina came into the weekend with the fourth-best offense in the country, but is winless against UConn in six all-time meetings. No surprise: the best offense in the nation belongs to UConn.
“I think every team is different within postseason than they are in the regular season. I think it’ll be a great test. They’re a battle every single time that we play them,” Nurse says.
It’s a tall order for anyone to beat the Huskies, who have won 193 of 195 games. Wilson says South Carolina must cut down on its turnovers after committing 26 against Buffalo.
“That’s a concern anyways no matter what. Of course Monday’s our next game, but that’s honestly the concern. That’s kind of not us and we’re just going to get back to our system," she says. "Of course we hate that, and it’s not good going into Monday, because that’s a glaring stat on the stat sheet, but that’s something we can fix. The turnovers weren’t forced, it was really just us, so once we start settling down and looking at the defense more, those turnovers will be cut in half.”
UConn junior Katie Lou Samuelson, the conference player of the year, says it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the teams’ first meeting.
“We know right off the bat it’s going to be a completely different game than when we played them earlier this season,” Samuelson says. “I think they’re going to hold that and really bring it at us because of how we played at their place. We played really well as a team so we want to play the same type of way, but we know they’re going to bring something different.”
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is a Hall of Famer and former WNBA star.
“It’s about us continuing to make history for our program. It’s a bid to go to the Elite Eight, and I think we all want to continue to play, we all have aspirations of winning the national championship,” Staley says. “When the ball is tipped up, I think it’s anybody’s game at that point. I don’t think our kids are playing with any extra pressure.”
Whichever team wins, part of the story of the tournament has been the Times Union Center itself, which has been undergoing a $20 million makeover. The county-owned arena will host another women’s regional next year — and the men’s NCAA tournament in 2020 after a 17-year absence.
Attendance was more than 10,000, no doubt boosted by the proximity to Storrs, Conn., and Buffalo and the inclusion of Duke, which has fans everywhere.
Monday’s winner heads to the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio on Friday.