COLUMBIA, S.C. – The game was already wrapped up. The result was not in doubt. But Zia Cooke, the feisty guard for the South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, wanted to give the raucous bunch of fans in garnet and black one more thing to cheer about.
After her teammate Mikiah Herbert Harrigan blocked a shot with one minute remaining, Cooke zoomed over to UConn’s Aubrey Griffin and swiped the ball away. The 5-foot-9 freshman from Toledo, Ohio, raced to the other end and effortlessly sank a layup, bringing the rowdy and proud bunch of Gamecocks supporters to their feet once more.
For the first time ever – after eight unsuccessful tries – South Carolina beat UConn in women’s basketball. The No. 1 Gamecocks captured a 70-52 victory over the No. 5 Huskies in dominant fashion, leading start to finish.
“This was different and special in its own way,” Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley said after the win. “We haven’t beaten a team like UConn, ever. And you could hear every person in this arena wanting us to do that.”
A different SC
Staley’s squad showed a few things Monday night. For starters – if they weren’t already – they are an absolutely legitimate candidate to not only make the Final Four, but to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Secondly, this team showed that it has some extra wrinkles to it. Often times this season, the Gamecocks have won with transition play, rebounding, second-chance buckets and owning the paint. Against UConn, the Gamecocks relied on guard play and they stretched out their offense.
Tyasha Harris – who we’ll get to in just a moment – was sensational. Coming into this game, South Carolina was attempting just 14 3-pointers per game. On Monday, they attempted 22 and made eight of them.
“They make all of those threes at the start of the second half, that was kind of like a back-breaker. Because that’s what we were planning to do. Let them have more of those and less of stuff in the lane and less stuff in transition,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “But that’s what good teams do. They’re not No. 1 in the country for no reason. They don’t have just one way of winning games.”
Boston sets tone for defense early
South Carolina didn’t completely abandon its bruising style of play. And early on, the Gamecocks did control the paint. They did something that no other team has ever done: they held UConn to just two points over the course of one quarter.
The Gamecocks’ early success and the way they were able to impose their will and set the tone defensively can be credited to the play of Aliyah Boston, the 6-foot-5 forward from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, who is staking her claim as the country’s top freshman. In the first quarter, Boston corralled nine rebounds, blocked two shots, had two steals and knocked down a 3-pointer.
“I just think we were focused and we knew what we had to do,” Boston said. “And we played how we knew we had to play.”
UConn was able to bottle up Boston later in the game, but by then she had already made her presence known and had helped her team earn a big, early advantage. She would finish with 13 points, 12 rebounds, an assist and three steals.
The Huskies simply didn’t have an answer for Boston early on and that put them in a hole too deep from which to crawl out.
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Seasoned point guard makes a difference
While Boston impacted the game in a big way, the leader for South Carolina was senior point guard Tyasha Harris.
A 5-foot-10 guard from Noblesville, Indiana, Harris came into this game very familiar with the pain that came with losing to UConn. She had previously been bested by the Huskies four times and she was determined to not allow Monday night to be the fifth.
“I just thought that Ty was a difference maker,” Staley said. “She wanted to win. And her performance was every indication of that.”
After Boston’s big first quarter, Harris began to put her imprint on the game in the second. In that period alone, she had six points and six assists. In total, Harris had a team-high 19 points and a team-high 11 assists for her first double-double of the season. She also had four rebounds, a steal and – the number that is perhaps most impressive – zero turnovers.
Oh, and she played all 40 minutes. And in most of the game’s moments, Harris’ steady hand and leadership was the difference.
“We just wanted to take whatever they gave us, but we wanted it generated from what Ty saw out there on the floor. And Ty did a great job of just managing the game. She knew when to shoot it, when to pull it back,” Staley said. “She looked comfortable. She looked like she wanted to be in control of the game.”
Crowd makes an impact
An announced crowd of 18,000 fans attended Monday’s game in Columbia. Colonial Life Arena was packed and loud.
When Boston grabbed a rebound, they roared. When Harris dished out a dime, they cheered. When Cooke swiped away a pass, they celebrated.
And if you ask people on both teams, the crowd definitely impacted the game.
“Yeah, I’m not sure what the attendance actually was, but they hold 18,000. This is probably the biggest arena we’ll play in,” UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield said. “At times, it was hard to hear.”
Added Staley: “We had 18,000 fans. You look on social media and (people) took off work, came from different states. The ones here just rallied everybody. I’m happy for them, because they cheered loud and proud. They wanted this for us in the same breath that we wanted it for us. We felt that.”
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