HARTFORD, Conn. -- No. 1 South Carolina secured the program's first victory in Connecticut over No. 5 UConn on Sunday as the reigning national champion posted an 81-77 victory on national television to remain unbeaten.
Unlike their last meeting in last year's national title game, where Gamecocks handily defeated the Huskies, 64-49, for their second championship, Sunday's game was much more competitive. The Huskies led by 11 early, South Carolina went ahead by 12 late, then UConn battled back to keep it within two possessions in the closing minutes amid an atmosphere that South Carolina coach Dawn Staley called "national championship-like."
"It was a great atmosphere," South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, the reigning national player of the year, said about the crowd of 15,564, the first sellout at the XL Center since 2017. "It almost felt like we were back in the tournament. I just feel like there were just so many people and a big crowd which is really, really nice."
"It was a great game for college women's basketball," she said.
South Carolina has now won four of its last five meetings against UConn. The Gamecocks are hoping to become the first team to repeat as champions since the Huskies did so from 2013 to 2016, and to also become the fifth program with at least three national titles.
Games like Sunday's, in Staley's estimation, can only help with that long-term vision.
"I want us to feel what it takes in order for us to do this [in the NCAA tournament]," Staley said. "It's going to take this kind of effort and attention to detail, and the crowd may not be in our favor, but we have to lock in."
Boston -- the presumptive No. 1 WNBA draft pick this year -- shined with 26 points (23 after halftime) and 11 rebounds while junior Kamilla Cardoso was a game-changer off the bench, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. UConn junior Aaliyah Edwards had a standout game with a team-high 25 points, while graduate student Lou Lopez Senechal added 19.
It was all UConn in the first quarter, where the Huskies outscored the Gamecocks 25-14. But then South Carolina took control before halftime, at which point both teams were tied at 34.
"Kamilla. Kamilla was the switch," Boston said of the difference between the first and second periods.
UConn outshot South Carolina overall 51.9% vs. 38.8% from the field, but the Gamecocks made up for it by besting the Huskies on the boards 42-30, using 25 offensive rebounds to score 25 second-chance points. Cardoso had a lot to do with that effort, with nine grabs off the offensive glass alone.
It was only a regular-season meeting, but tensions were high as the game went down to the wire. With South Carolina up six and just under four minutes remaining, UConn coach Geno Auriemma spiked a water bottle on the ground when he was upset there was no foul called on Lopez Senechal's defender, what he later admitted was a "dumb mistake by me."
The Huskies went from down six to down 10 as a result. Another technical was issued with less than 90 seconds remaining when Cardoso was upset about a foul called on her and slammed the ball underneath the basket. While UConn pulled within four and then three in the final 30 seconds, South Carolina made enough free throws to close it out with a win.
It was the fourth time this season that the 23-0 Gamecocks won after trailing by double-digits, with three of those instances coming against ranked teams.
The Huskies, who have been shorthanded most of the season, played six players more than a minute. The 2021 No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd has been out most of the year with a knee injury, while sophomore Caroline Ducharme has been sidelined this calendar year with a concussion. The 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers and freshman Ice Brady were injured in the preseason and are out for the year. Ducharme could return as soon as this upcoming week, while Fudd does not have a timetable for her return.
Behind standout days from Cardoso and redshirt freshman Raven Johnson, South Carolina's bench outscored UConn's 37-0, showcasing the team's trademark depth that has made this year's squad arguably even more potent than last season's.
Auriemma said his team needed to make more 3s (2-for-6) to keep up with the Gamecocks on the glass and ultimately win, but was proud of his team's fight; UConn's 4-point margin of defeat was the narrowest of any South Carolina opponent this season.
"I feel better at 3 o'clock today than I did at 12 o'clock," Auriemma said, whose team fell to 21-3 on the season. "Because at 12 o'clock I really didn't know how we would respond. ... I know more now than I did at noon and I feel better about my team. ... I felt great about my team before, but I feel really good about them right now."
And if UConn has its way, this won't be the last time it faces the Gamecocks this season.
"We wanted to get out of this game with a win," Lopez Senechal said, "but we know we'll face them again and we'll get the win."