COLUMBIA — This was supposed to be the season they were finally vulnerable.
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After losing players who would become the top three selections in the WNBA draft, this was supposed to be the season Connecticut came back to the field. With no Breanna Stewart patrolling the baseline, no Moriah Jefferson running point, no Morgan Tuck on the wing — this was supposed to be the season cracks begin to show in college basketball’s greatest dynasty.
“Everyone thought that way,” said Debbie Antonelli, a Mount Pleasant resident and one of the top television analysts in the women’s game. When the preseason AP poll was released, the 11-time national champion Huskies weren’t first — but third, behind Notre Dame and Baylor.
As usual, it’s UConn head coach Geno Auriemma getting the last laugh. When No. 6 South Carolina travels to Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., for Monday’s night’s showdown with the Huskies, it will face a Connecticut team that hasn’t slipped back to the pack — but only reestablished its dominance, with an iron grip on No. 1 in the poll and a record winning streak that threatens to reach an even 100 games against the Gamecocks.
“Yeah, they had players who went 1-2-3 in the draft. But it’s a part of their culture. They expect to win,” said Antonelli, who played at North Carolina State. “These players, it’s next man up, this is how we play, this is what we do. I don’t want to shortchange what (Auriemma) has done, because he does have three great players. But from an expectation standpoint, I thought they’d have two or three losses by now.”
Instead, UConn behind its rebuilt starting lineup has extended a winning streak that began over two years ago, after an 88-86 overtime loss at Stanford on Nov. 17, 2014, that temporarily elevated South Carolina to No. 1. In the 99 games since, the Huskies haven’t just won, they’re rarely been even tested — USC last season was one of eight opponents to stay within a dozen points, and just two games during the streak have been decided by single-digits.
Alaina Coates and USC fell 66-54 to UConn last season in Columbia.
One of those marked the closest the streak has come to ending. On Nov. 14 of this season, Florida State’s Shakayla Thomas had a runner in the lane blocked by UConn’s Napheesa Collier with eight seconds remaining and the Seminoles down one. FSU had one last chance after a made free throw, but Imani Wright’s 3-point attempt as time expired bounced off the front rim, and the Huskies escaped Tallahassee with a 78-76 victory.
A month later at Maryland, Connecticut won by six. The 97 other victories during the steak have all been decided by double-figures, and most have been like those the Huskies (24-0) have compiled over the last two months in American Athletic Conference play, where they’ve won by an average of over 44 points per game.
It’s part of the world the Huskies have created, one where dominance is the lone expectation. “There’s a lot of pressure to play at Connecticut,” Auriemma told the Hartford Courant. “You want to be the first group that’s not winning? That’s lousy. It’s almost like we play poorly in the first five minutes of the game and it’s a big story. For the most part, we do a pretty good job at keeping them looking at the next step. Don’t look too far ahead.”
The current winning streak is the longest in college basketball history, breaking the previous record of 90 games set by — the UConn women, of course. “That’s great for them, but we’re going to be focused on us right now,” said USC All-American forward A’ja Wilson, averaging 17 points per game. “That’s the way we’ve been all season. We’re not going to switch up anything.”
Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley hasn’t mentioned UConn’s streak to her team. “I haven’t even brought that stuff up,” she said. Instead she’s emphasized that this is the last chance for her upperclassmen to win in Storrs, and her message after practice Sunday was one of belief in her squad.
“We have a good team we’re taking up there,” she said. “I believe in them. I believe that we can win the basketball game. I just feel like we need to stay in character, stay organized, and we need to communicate, because it’s a tough environment.”
How does UConn keep it going, even after personnel losses that would cripple most other teams? Staley, an assistant to Auriemma at the 2016 Olympics, said the Huskies head coach is “very fortunate that it’s his way or no way,” which isn’t the case at every program.
“I’d like to think it’s my way or no way, but at some point these players have you. Because you need them, you need them to perform. But for me, in coaching, I’ve got to coach players through basketball (and) life lessons. He gets the players where he can just coach basketball. Because they pretty much do what they need to do,” she said.
“Most UConn players go play professionally. Most of mine don’t go play professionally. They go into the real world, so we’ve got to have balance in what we’re doing. Not to say he doesn’t go through it. But I’m going to take a kid that kind of looks like me, grew up like me, take a chance on them, and hopefully they end up with the type of success I’ve had, versus getting someone that’s probably ready-made for the real world.”
South Carolina (21-2) is almost certainly UConn’s last real test before the Final Four, where the Huskies haven’t lost since 2012, and never in the national championship game. If Connecticut gets past the Gamecocks, that record winning streak may well keep going and going into next season.
“There’s a lot riding on it. It’s more than just a win and a loss for the game,” said Antonelli, who will call the Florida State-Texas matchup Monday that precedes USC-UConn on ESPN2. “If you look at it as other pressure, from the outside, it could give someone who doesn’t follow our game hope that someone else could win.”
Staley certainly seems to recognize that. “I think it’s good for the game for them to get rocked a little bit,” she said. “... They haven’t shied away from playing tough competition. We’re going in there in a tough environment, and we’re giving it our best shot. Probably everybody in America is going to be cheering for us, so hopefully they send positive vibes to Storrs.”
And if South Carolina can pull the upset Monday, perhaps someone else can do the same in March. “Certainly, it would hopefully crack the code a little bit,” Staley said, “to where some other teams can do kind of what we’re going to do to them to get a win.”
USC vs. UCONN
How can No. 6 South Carolina beat No. 1 Connecticut? TV analyst Debbie Antonelli of Mount Pleasant offers three keys:
1. Establish the high-low game with 6-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-3 Alaina Coates. “UConn’s front line is undersized and quick, and they have been prone to foul trouble,” Antonelli said. The Huskies don’t start a player taller than 6-3 Katie Lou Samuelson, who works primarily on the wing.
2. Get production out of the point guard position. USC starter Tyasha Harris isn’t viewed as an offensive threat, but she has 16 3-pointers this season. UConn’s help defense on Wilson and Coates will leave the point guard spot unguarded, Antonelli said.
3. Watch out for Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray. The two wing players have been the X factors offensively this season for USC, and one or both will have to make shots to take pressure off the post. “If they can get hot and make some plays, and come up with a combined 30 (points) and 15 (rebounds), they could win,” Antonelli said of USC.
— David Caraviello