Wednesday, February 28, 2024

South Carolina women’s basketball’s guards carry Dawn Staley’s message in third quarter

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina women’s basketball came out of the locker room after halftime with a 14-point lead and all of the momentum in front of a sold-out crowd Sunday at Colonial Life Arena.

It was the third quarter that would be the difference maker for the No. 1 Gamecocks (23-0) as they trounced No. 9 UConn (20-5) on their way to an 83-65 victory.

“(South Carolina coach Dawn) Staley’s message was that the third quarter will determine how we’re going to end the game,” senior guard Te-Hina Paopao said. “We wanted to come out punching first like the beginning of the game and that was what we did. We rode the waves to the end.”

The Gamecocks took a 25-14 advantage in the quarter, punctuated by a 3-pointer from freshman guard Tessa Johnson that stretched the lead to 25 points.

Thanks to that, they didn’t need to sweat when UConn started to chip away in the fourth quarter. The gap never narrowed beyond 18 points in a game in which they never trailed.

“We didn’t get out to a great third-quarter start, but over the course of the quarter I thought we widened the lead,” Staley said. “We did what we needed to do defensively. . . . They ate into that lead in the fourth quarter, but it gave us enough cushion.”

UConn senior forward Aaliyah Edwards scored 14 of her 20 points in the second half and junior guard Paige Bueckers scored six of her 20 points in the third quarter, but UConn coach Geno Auriemma said his team wasn’t prepared to compete against South Carolina.

“If you’re going to win a game like this, you either have to have more players with better talent or you’re going to have to play a much smarter game and get some help from the other team,” Auriemma said. “We certainly didn’t get any help from them.”

Paopao’s first half set the table for the Gamecocks with 16 of her 21 points before the break. When they came back from halftime, she handed it off to Raven Johnson, who had eight third-quarter points and six rebounds. Johnson finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds for her first career double-double, and had five assists.

South Carolina’s guards took the pressure off the forwards, who stepped in for senior center Kamilla Cardoso. Despite missing their leading rebounder in Cardoso, who is playing with Team Brazil in an Olympic qualifying tournament, the Gamecocks outrebounded the Huskies 46-37.

“I told Ashlyn (Watkins) I would help her rebound because I know that Kamilla gets a lot of rebounds on offense,” Johnson said. “I told her I’d help her crash the boards.”

Johnson’s speed helped outrun UConn — which used only a seven-player rotation — early, though Staley told her to slow down because she was limiting her options on offense. Slowing down allowed her to see more of the floor.

Paopao entered Sunday on a miniature slump, scoring fewer than 10 points in three of South Carolina’s past four games, but said she wasn’t thinking about it when she made her first three 3-point attempts against UConn.

Staley’s message to Paopao was clear — she needs to keep shooting and get it going. Paopao did both Sunday.

“You’ve just got to lock in and know that everything is going to go in,” Paopao said. “It went in.”

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South Carolina’s win was its fourth in a row over UConn, including a 64-49 victory in the 2022 NCAA national championship game. The Gamecocks lost the first eight games in the series, and Staley thanked Auriemma for continuing to schedule them when they would win every game.

Now, South Carolina is taking the torch as women’s basketball’s most dominant program, and Staley confirmed Friday that UConn will be back in Columbia next season.

“(Auriemma’s) program has helped our program grow,” she said. “That’s what you want. I hope we’re helping other programs grow in the same matter.”

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