Gamecocks next test in store for Huskies
STORRS — Geno Auriemma doesn’t schedule marquee opponents solely for the purpose of boosting his team’s résumé come March.
“You play these games,” the UConn coach said Saturday following a 109-74 rout of Temple at Gampel Pavilion, “because yeah, the more times you play well in these games, the more you feel when you get into March that you’ve kind of experienced a lot of different things.”
Face a quality, upsetminded opponent on the road? Check. Play a guardheavy, run-and-gun perimeter team? Check. Take on a tall, physical team that presents matchup nightmares? Check.
With a little more than a month to go before the NCAA tournament, where their quest for a 12th national title will ramp up in intensity, the Huskies have learned their share of valuable lessons.
“I was telling my players recently, maybe it was yesterday,” Auriemma said, “when you see the bracket in the NCAA Tournament and you see 16 teams, and there’s you and 15 other teams, you might see 10 different styles of basketball on all those teams.
“The more teams that you can play during the season that exposes you to that, I think the better you’re going to be come March.”
UConn’s next test comes Monday, when No. 12 South Carolina visits the XL Center in Hartford (7 p.m.). It’s the Huskies’ third game against a ranked opponent since the calendar flipped to 2019.
The last two didn’t go so well. Losses to Baylor and Louisville, the current No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the As-
sociated Press poll, remain the only two blemishes to date on an otherwise strong season for Auriemma & Co.
Guard Crystal Dangerfield said that playing well against a Top-15 team will be “huge” for the Huskies’ collective psyche moving forward.
“It’s more so for what we’re going to face in the tournament because that’s what we’re building for and what we’ve been building for since October,” she said. “That’s what’s we want to do. We want to be mentally and physically prepared for things like that.”
Dangerfield, a steadying presence in the backcourt, said “time will tell” if the Huskies are ready for what’s to come against South Carolina.
Though the Gamecocks no longer have A’ja Wilson, who as a senior was the consensus National Player of the Year, they do have a deep, versatile lineup and a coach with a national championship on her résumé.
South Carolina started 4-4 under Dawn Staley — with losses to a trio of Top-10 teams in Maryland, Oregon State and Baylor — but has since won 13 of 14 to improve to 17-5 (9-1 in the SEC). Four players are averaging 9.6 points or more, led by junior guard Te’a Cooper (12.7). The Gamecocks have speed in the backcourt and size up front, with 6-foot-2 Alexis Jennings recording 10.5 points and 6 rebounds per game.
“It’s kind of our last big test before postseason play,” forward Napheesa Collier said. “We kind of have to put everything that we’ve learned from all our other games, our two losses and everything, and try to bring it together and execute it on Monday.
“We can’t keep making the same mistakes that we’ve been making.”
The Gamecocks traditionally have been no match for UConn. They’ve lost all seven meetings (by average of 27 points), including 94-65 in last year’s Elite Eight in Albany, N.Y. The Huskies, who are 21-2 (10-0 AAC) and ranked No. 5 in the country, know the past doesn’t mean a whole lot, though.
They’ve had only one day to prepare for this latest matchup, which Auriemma hopes will prepare his players for the grind they’ll experience in March.
“That’s something that we’re trying to do every year,” Auriemma said. “We’re trying to get as many games as we can where you’ve got one game Saturday and you know that the next game is Monday, or Sunday-Tuesday. The second game is always much more difficult than the first one.
“That’s what we try to do.”
Coach Dawn Staley and 15th-ranked South Carolina take on No. 5 UConn on Monday in Hartford.