HARTFORD, Conn. — When Connecticut guard Lou Lopez Sénéchal could not extricate herself from the grasp of a South Carolina defender on an inbounds play in front of her own bench on Sunday, it was one too many bumps, one too many clutches and one too many grabs for her coach, Geno Auriemma.
Auriemma slammed the water bottle in his right hand as if he were spiking a football in the end zone and had to be restrained by his assistants from charging farther onto the court.
He was, of course, slapped with a technical foul. The whistle, with 3 minutes 57 seconds to play, proved costly, robbing the Huskies of a possession and awarding two free throws and the ball to the Gamecocks.
That allowed the star forward Aliyah Boston the opportunity to sink two free throws and then deliver a short jumper, which ultimately proved to be the difference in top-ranked South Carolina’s 81-77 victory over short-handed but game Connecticut, which is ranked fifth.
Auriemma’s eruption may have been a pivot point — resulting in South Carolina expanding its lead to 10 points — in what was otherwise a showcase for women’s basketball. The Gamecocks highlighted their defensive grit, tenacious rebounding and championship mettle against a Huskies team that — unlike when they met for the Division I national championship in April — showed considerable fight from the opening tip.
That it came on an afternoon in front of a capacity, white-out crowd of 15,564 and was broadcast nationally on network television made the technical foul all the more regrettable.
“Dumb mistake by me,” said Auriemma, who apologized to his team. “It was a bad decision.”
It was not as if the Gamecocks needed much help.
Boston, a bruising 6-foot-5 forward who had 26 points and 11 rebounds — and drew eight fouls — showed the form that made her last season’s national player of the year. She led an interior assault that yielded 25 second-chance points for South Carolina.
South Carolina (23-0), which kept its record unblemished ahead of next Sunday’s showdown with another unbeaten team from the Southeastern Conference, Louisiana State, looks as formidable as it did when it won its second title last season.
After losing eight consecutive games to Connecticut, South Carolina has now won three in a row and four of five against the Huskies (21-3). But Sunday’s win was the first at the XL Center in Hartford, the Huskies’ home away from home, where 11 national championship banners hang above the court.
“In the whole grand scheme of things, it’s not really important,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. “But for your psyche, when we’ve beaten UConn in the regular season, great things happen in the postseason. You’ve got to feel some success, or you play ’em again and you’ve lost that game, it does give you a little bit of doubt that you can’t beat them.”
Their Philadelphia roots aside, Staley and Auriemma come at the game differently. (While Staley prowled the sideline in an Eagles hoodie, Auriemma will be rooting for Kansas City in the Super Bowl because of his friendship with the team’s defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, a former UConn football assistant.)
The Gamecocks make use of a deep bench and an athletic roster, preferring to run their offense through Boston. As it turned out, two of their most productive players came off the bench — guard Raven Johnson, who had 14 points and 7 assists, and center Kamilla Cardoso, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds.
The Huskies play a more free-flowing, international game, as might be expected from a starting lineup that featured players from five countries — Hungary, Croatia, France, Canada and the United States. Regrettably, the Huskies’ best players remained on their bench in gray sweatsuits: Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme.
Bueckers, a junior guard who was the national player of the year as a freshman and who carried Connecticut to the title game last spring, is likely out for the season after tearing knee ligaments in August. But Fudd, who has missed all but six quarters of the last two months with a knee injury, and Ducharme, a much-needed perimeter threat who has been out since Dec. 31 with a concussion, are expected to return this month.
Despite the injuries, UConn has rolled on, losing only twice before Sunday — road losses to ranked Maryland and Notre Dame teams in early December. The Huskies have walloped Creighton and Tennessee on the road and recently rallied to beat their one challenger in the Big East Conference, Villanova.
Among their starters, only Aaliyah Edwards, who led Connecticut with 25 points, played fewer than 37 minutes, her time limited by foul trouble.
South Carolina thumped UConn in the championship game last April, the 64-49 score glossing over just how emphatic the victory was. The Gamecocks bolted to a 17-4 lead and never loosened their grip, gobbling up 21 offensive rebounds and rarely letting anyone but Bueckers bother them. As Nika Muhl, a junior guard, told reporters on Friday: “They punched us once in that game and we never responded.”
The Huskies at least showed a sturdier chin on Sunday.
They seemed intent on addressing every one of last April’s deficiencies from the start. They resisted Boston’s efforts to set up camp in the low post and swarmed her with two or three defensive players on the rare occasion her teammates fed her the ball. And with South Carolina crowding the perimeter, Connecticut spread the court and regularly beat the Gamecocks to the rim.
When Lopez banked in a running 3-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer, the crowd came to its feet and the bench emptied to celebrate a start that could not have gone better, leading, 25-14.
Slowly, though, South Carolina reeled the Huskies in and by halftime the score was tied.
Asked what the switch was, Boston said: “Kamilla was the switch.”
Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 center, had 11 points and 5 offensive rebounds by halftime. In the third quarter, Boston, who did not have a basket in the first half, asserted herself in front of her parents, cousins and former youth teammates who played with her in Worcester, Mass., after she relocated from the U.S. Virgin Islands in seventh grade to further her basketball ambitions.
She scored 12 consecutive points in one stretch.
“Aliyah only wants to win,” Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered.”
The same could not be said for the man on the opposite bench.
Auriemma said he was “appalled” at how few fouls were called against South Carolina players defending Lopez, who scored 19 points but drew just three fouls. “It’s not basketball anymore,” he said.
But he did not excuse himself for the technical. “It was stupid,” he said.
He was asked, on the whole, how he felt about the afternoon — a competitive defeat to the best team in the country with so many key pieces missing. Auriemma said he asked his players the same question: glass half-full or half-empty?
One player, he said, spoke up: “‘It’s empty. We lost. It sucks,’” he said the player told the room, a sign perhaps that Connecticut, which hasn’t won a national championship since 2016, isn’t done trying just yet.