Games like the one Monday night at Colonial Life Arena are ones basketball neophytes dream of playing in — a packed arena and nothing but 94 feet, four teammates and five defenders between two hoops.
South Carolina may have beaten eight ranked opponents this season — three in the top-10 — entering its tilt against Connecticut, but this was Connecticut. A team it had never beaten in eight tries.
Eighteen thousand in attendance, four of them WNBA scouts and one of them NFL Defensive Player of the Year and South Carolina alumnus Stephon Gilmore. A limitless audience on ESPN2.
It lived up to the billing.
Behind a stingy defense and the leadership of Ty Harris, No. 1 South Carolina (23-1, 10-0 SEC) put to bed any doubt of its national ranking and beat the No. 5 Huskies (20-3, 10-0 AAC) 70-52.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said Monday’s victory, backed by a raucous home crowd, ranks first among the team’s home wins during her 12 seasons at the school.
“We haven’t beat a team like UCONN, ever,” Staley said. “And you could hear every single person in this arena wanting us to do that.”
“It’s a great win for us against a perennial power in front of a packed house,” South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner told Spurs & Feathers. “Coach Staley and her team seem to be doing that all year. They put together another complete game.
“It’s an awesome night for our program.”
“We’re allowed to lose a G-d damn game once in a while when the other team plays better than us. So how ‘bout you write that somewhere?” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said.
“South Carolina played way better than Connecticut. … They’re not number one in the country for no reason.”
Harris had her first double-double of the season with 19 points and 11 assists. Maybe more importantly, she also had no turnovers and never left the court.
“I think it helps our confidence a lot, letting the world know we’re going to continue [to] the Final Four,” Harris said. “It’s great for our program, just because it was the first.”
Staley said, overall, it was Harris’s “most complete game statistically and mentally” as a Gamecock.
“I thought Ty was the difference maker. When you have a senior point guard that has lost to that team three times, she wanted to win, and her performance was every indication of that,” the coach said.
“… I thought Ty did a great job managing the game. She knew when to shoot it, she knew when to pull it back, she knew who should shoot it, and that’s just a seasoned point guard. ... She’s showing everybody around the country what she’s made of.”
The coach added that her current team didn’t play Connecticut’s storied history with 11 national championships. It played the current group of talented Huskies.
“And they didn’t flinch,” she said.
Gamecock center Aliyah Boston had 13 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks while fellow freshman Zia Cooke added 15 points.
Harris’s mom, Shannon Greer Harris, told Spurs & Feathers at halftime she felt Monday’s game meant just a bit more to her daughter with it possibly being her last chance to hand the Huskies a loss.
“When she hit those first few shots, I definitely thought we were going to pull it off,” Greer Harris said.
“She was locked in.”
Crystal Dangerfield led the Huskies, a team that scored just two points in the first quarter, with 25 points.
South Carolina’s 12-point halftime lead ballooned to 21, at 46-25, after 3s from Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Harris and Brea Beal in a 54-second span.
The Gamecock lead shrunk to 13, at 54-41, entering the fourth quarter, but the team’s defense continued to lock down and the offense continued to capitalize.
Connecticut’s Christyn Williams airballed. Herbert Harrigan swatted an Aubrey Griffin shot underneath moments before the home team forced the Huskies into a 30-second violation.
Herbert Harrigan then swished a 3 from the right wing to push the lead to 59-43 with 7:28 to go in regulation.
The crowd could taste victory.
And it came.
At the buzzer, Staley felt a sense of relief. But not surprise.
“Relieved that we got it done,” she said.
Both teams combined to shoot 3 of 22 from the field out of the gate, with a Boston straight-on 3-pointer — her first-career attempt and make — that gave the home team an early 5-2 lead.
Connecticut missed 15 of its 16 shots in the first quarter, plus two free throws.
Two Harris jumpers at the 4:23 and 2:01 marks followed by a buzzer-beating layup gave the Gamecocks an 11-2 advantage at the first break.
Harris picked up where she left off and began the second quarter by swiping Dangerfield and scoring on a coast-to-coast layup. Forty-six seconds later she scored again. “From the start I knew I had to be more assertive,” Harris said.
“She does a great job keeping us composed,” Boston said.
But the teams traded baskets.
Harris’s early layup was followed by a Dangerfield 3. The basket 46 seconds later was followed by one from Olivia Nelson-Ododa 19 seconds later. Twenty-three seconds later LeLe Grissett swished a jumper, but the bucket was answered by one from Dangerfield.
Gamecock guard Destanni Henderson followed her bench-mate Grissett with two 3s over a two-and-half-minute span to give the home team a 25-13 lead. Cooke joined the party with a jumper in the lane at the 3:18 mark, causing the fans inside Colonial Life Arena to spring to its collective feet.
Harris obliged with another jumper, increasing the home team’s lead to 31-15 with 2:52 to go in the half.
Staley said she tried to steal a few seconds here and there for her point guard to rest, but the senior was having none of it.
“She looked at me and she was like, ‘Don’t take me out. Don’t take me out,’” the coach said. “And like a good coach, I didn’t take her out. She looked comfortable. She looked like she wanted to be in control.
“… She’s the consummate point guard. She’s going to run your show. She’s highly intelligent. She knows when to shoot it. She knows the plays. She expresses herself out there. She makes sure everybody is where they need to be. She can shoot the ball.
“She’s got an incredible skill set along with being highly intelligence.”
“She has been on a mission this year,” Harris’s offseason trainer Derrick Grant told Spurs & Feathers in a text message at halftime.
“The team is playing really good. They’re playing together,” Greer Harris said at halftime. “I think she’s leading them and doing an awesome job getting out there and staying true to what they do. They’ve been playing good defense.
“They need to keep it up for two more quarters.”
“Two more quarters. Twenty more minutes,” Bruce Harris, Ty’s dad, told Spurs & Feathers.
They did, and because of it added more history to an already historical season.
South Carolina talked in its locker room after the final buzzer about the game’s significance moving forward.
“This can’t really have any bearings on how we move forward,” Staley said. “We said, whether we won or lost, all of our goals are still in place. I’m happy that our team won. I’m happy for a lot of reasons.
“Our current team, our former players who have not been this lucky to win a game against UCONN. I mean, we had 18,000 fans. If you look on social media, I mean, they took off work. They came from different states… They wanted this probably in the same breath as we wanted it for us.”
Harris paused for seven seconds when asked if she feels the Gamecocks are the best team in the country.
“I feel like we’re up there, yes,” she said, noting her team hasn’t played Oregon or Oregon State. “But I feel like we’re great contenders for the Final Four.”