Gamecocks’ perfect record swept up in UConn’s perfect storm

A sellout crowd watched as second-ranked Connecticut knocked off No. 1 South Carolina on Monday in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

It was one of the few times Monday night when the sellout crowd at Gampel Pavilion became anything resembling quiet. No. 1 South Carolina scored three quick buckets to open the second half, and Connecticut’s once-burgeoning lead had been cut to 10 points.

At the next huddle, Huskies star Breanna Stewart delivered a clear message to her team.

“That’s it,” said the reigning Naismith Trophy winner. “That’s their run. They’re done.”

No one was more surprised to hear it than Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.

“Usually, Stewart doesn’t say anything,” he said. “She doesn’t say anything.”

That was the buzzsaw the Gamecocks encountered in the most anticipated women’s college basketball game of the year — not only a second-ranked Connecticut team that played at an exceptionally high level before a raucous home crowd, but one that also wanted to make a statement. An overtime loss at Stanford early in the season and a weak American Athletic Conference slate left questions about this Huskies squad that were answered emphatically in an 87-62 victory over the Gamecocks.

“They hung with us for a while in the first half, and we knew they were going to do that. They’re a good team, obviously. They’ve been No. 1 for a reason,” said Stewart, whose team will almost certainly inherit that mantle when the new poll comes out Monday. “But we knew that we had more deciding factors to win the game than they did.”

Combine those intangibles with the atmosphere, and the Gamecocks were swept up in a perfect UConn storm that swept away their perfect record. Their typically dominant inside game met its match against Connecticut, which blocked six South Carolina shots and outscored USC in the paint. In the heat of a 21-2 UConn run that broke the game open, USC looked uncharacteristically anxious on offense, a contrast to the composure that has been a hallmark of this team and fueled the comeback victory Dec. 7 at Duke.

“This is a long step,” said USC’s Tiffany Mitchell, the reigning SEC player of the year. “We’re going to learn from it. We’re not going to drop our heads. We learned a lot, this team in this room, from this one game. We’re going to take this and keep moving.”

There were some stretches where the Gamecocks (22-1) held their own or even outplayed the nine-time national champions, making it natural to wonder what type of game the two teams might play on a neutral court — in, say, the Final Four. Mitchell was her gritty self, Goose Creek native Aleighsa Welch posted a double-double and Khadijah Sessions showed an outside scoring touch in the second half. Then there were other stretches where UConn started rolling and USC looked as outmatched as any other opponent on the toughest home court in the women’s game.

On a night when UConn shot 55 percent, placed four starters in double figures and played “unbelievably well” by its head coach’s admission, there was only so much the Gamecocks could do.

“You don’t go into any game thinking that four of your starters are going to play their A-game,” Auriemma said. “If you’ve got two, that’s a lot. And we had four. When we have that, I don’t know, that is a tough task for anybody. South Carolina is a great team, they are hard to play against, really hard to play against. But when you get four guys playing the way those guys played — it’s hard to play against us. Really hard, especially in the atmosphere we were able to feed off.”

The final result wasn’t just the Gamecocks’ first loss of the season, but their worst defeat since 2011. “They’re a really good team, in every shape and form,” Welch said. “You give credit where credit is due.”

Of course, there’s a reason UConn (23-1) wanted this game so badly — its remaining schedule, against AAC opponents such as Tulane, Houston and Tulsa, doesn’t afford much opportunity for statement-making. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks move forward beginning with Thursday’s home game against LSU toward a finishing stretch that includes three ranked teams to close the regular season, with an opportunity to be more battle-hardened for March.

And just maybe, one more meeting with the Huskies — with something greater than a No. 1 ranking at stake.

“I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “For us, we’re forever in search of playing our best basketball. Our players are in a position where we work on our weaknesses, we recognize them, and they humble us. They make us work extremely hard and try to correct those things. So for us, we’ve got LSU. We’re in a tie for first in our conference. And we don’t want to lose sight of being a really good basketball team. That’s what we are.”