MINNEAPOLIS — The UConn women’s basketball team was stopped short of getting its 12th NCAA National Championship title on Sunday night by a relentless South Carolina.
South Carolina's exemplary work on the glass and their ability to force UConn turnovers were the difference, as the Huskies could not get within striking distance of the Gamecocks. South Carolina won 64-59.
UConn is now 11-1 in NCAA Championship game history.
"You have to be really good and have to be really luck to win a National Championship," said head coach Geno Auriemma said after the game. "So the 11 times that we won, maybe all 11 but probably 10, we were the better team."
It had been one of the most challenging seasons of Auriemma’s Hall of Fame career. UConn overcame losing eight players for at least two games with injury or illness, including Paige Bueckers, who missed nearly three months with a left knee injury suffered in early December. She came back in late February but wasn’t at the same level that earned her AP Player of the Year as a freshman last season.
"I'm proud of our guys just to be in this situation, but tonight we just didn't have enough," said Auriemma. "I think it was a remarkable effort by them to stay together all year."
Bueckers, playing just 10 miles from where she honed her game as a sharp-shooting, slick-passing and ace-ballhandling guard at Hopkins High School, finished the game with 14 points on 6-13 shooting to go along with six rebounds. Bueckers also played the most minutes out of everyone for UConn, with 39 minutes played.
"I'm super proud of this team with how far we've come, all the adversity we've health with," said Bueckers. "Just wish things could've gone different for our seniors."
South Carolina jumped ahead early thanks to their aggression on the boards. In the first five minutes of the game, the Gamecocks grabbed five offensive rebounds and led UConn 8-1 in rebound differential. This allowed them to go up by nine.
UConn could not get much going either as South Carolina’s defense held the Huskies to just eight points in the entire first quarter. This was the fewest points they’ve scored in a quarter in the entire season.
"I don't think from the beginning of the game our offense looks in any kind of rhythm or any kind of flow," said Auriemma.
The second quarter was more of the same for UConn as South Carolina continued to dominate them on the glass and take advantage of Connecticut's seven turnovers, midway through the quarter.
UConn started to close the gap they’d dug for themselves, going on a 9-0 run late in the second quarter with key buckets from freshman guard Caroline Ducharme.
The Huskies had to lean on Bueckers as hard as they could as she finished the half with nine points, and against any other team in the country, she might have been enough, but she could only do so much.
South Carolina led 35-27 at halftime. The Gamecocks were beating UConn 25-13 in the rebounding battle, had scored 11 points off turnovers compared to UConn’s two and had 17 second-chance points.
In the third, South Carolina took control again going on a 9-0 run to start the quarter until Bueckers drove and score a layup midway through. South Carolina continued to outrebound UConn and get to the free-throw line as UConn could not buy a bucket.
But UConn did not go down without a fight, as late in the third quarter UConn went on a 10-0 run with two three-pointers coming from Ducharme and Evina Westbrook.
South Carolina just would not let up in the fourth with Destanni Henderson continuing to hit UConn from three as she finished with a game-high 26 points.
UConn just could not overcome their rebounding woes and the Gamecock's stifling defense, losing for the first time in the championship game in team history.
South Carolina head coach, Dawn Staley, became the first Black coach in men’s or women’s Division I basketball history to win multiple national championships/
It was also announced after the game that South Carolina's Aaliyah Boston had won the NCAA Player of the Tournament award and had been selected for the All-Tournament team, as well as Bueckers, who was the only UConn player to be selected.
The Huskies will now be losing three seniors in Christyn Williams, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa but still have a solid group back led by Bueckers and freshman Azzi Fudd. If the Huskies stay healthy, they’ll have a good shot to contend for next year's title.
"It's hard to say each year what could happen, but I like our chances," said Auriemma. "I expect to be back here next year."
Westbrook spoke after the game about how she felt going out losing in the championship game.
"Definitely not the outcome that we wanted," said Westbrook. "We win together, we lose together, so this definitely hurts."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Daniel Dashefsky is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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