No. 2 UConn deals top-ranked Gamecocks first loss of season

Connecticut’s Kia Nurse, center, is fouled by South Carolina’s Alaina Coates, left, as A'ja Wilson, right, defends during the first half of the Huskies' victory on Monday night. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

STORRS, Conn. — It kept coming again and again, in relentless waves, one flurry of bright white after another. It wasn’t the snow outside of Gampel Pavilion, but it certainly piled up just like it, and it left No. 1 South Carolina buried in its wake.

The Gamecocks’ hopes of cementing their top ranking in the home of the nine-time national champions instead became an abrupt end to the longest winning streak in the program’s history. On a snowy Monday night, second-ranked Connecticut scorched the nets and left South Carolina grasping in an 87-62 blowout which will almost certainly return the Huskies to top of the national polls next week.

The Gamecocks (22-1) had few answers for a precision Connecticut offense that shot 55 percent from the floor. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis hit a barrage of 3-pointers to finish with 23 points, Breanna Stewart used an array of inside moves to score 22, and the final result was USC’s worst loss since a 32-point setback to Georgia in the 2011 SEC tournament.

“We got beat by a really good basketball team,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. “But I thought the effort was there. I think we needed to finish. We saw, when you get great position, you can be really efficient and effective. Hopefully, that’s a lesson to learn paying against this kind of competition that some of our players can add to their games.”

They certainly received a clinic Monday, when Connecticut (23-1) placed four starters in double figures. Stewart, the frontrunner for national player of the year, ducked and spun to one inside basket after another, while Mosqueda-Lewis was 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. The Huskies broke the game open with a 21-2 run late in the first half, and their size frustrated a USC squad that was often forced to work deep into possessions to find a shot.

“I don’t think we came into the game expecting this was going to be the score,” said Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma. “We just wanted to play a good game. I thought we played unbelievably well.”

No argument from Staley. “They figure out who should shoot the ball, who should have the ball in their hands, and they’re patient enough to wait for it,” she said. “And if you lose patience, they’re going to score easily, and that’s what they did to us.”

South Carolina kept fighting, closing to within 10 points early in the second half. But every time the Gamecocks tried to narrow the gap, UConn blew it open again. Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch led USC with 17 points, and Welch added 11 rebounds on a night where she also drew the unenviable task of trying to guard Stewart on the defensive end.

“It’s one thing we focused on — not only being able to finish through their height, but also being able to defend it,” the Goose Creek native said. “It’s just, they made plays. At the end of the day, they made plays. There are things we have to look at look and work on to make sure we can correct the mistakes we made, especially on the defensive end.”

Connecticut won its 22nd consecutive game since an overtime loss at Stanford on Nov. 17, which opened the door for South Carolina to ascend to No. 1. Playing in front of a capacity crowd of 10,167, the Huskies won for the 30th straight time on their home floor and improved to 200-19 at Gampel since the facility opened in 1990. In the final minutes, the crowd chanted “We’re No. 1,” which is where the Huskies will likely be when the new poll is released Monday.

“As if we needed another opportunity to prove this is the basketball capital of the world,” Auriemma told the crowd after the game, “we proved that again tonight.”

South Carolina, meanwhile, heads home for a Thursday night home game against LSU. USC’s historic winning streak is over, and any hopes of a perfect season have been dashed. But the Gamecocks managed to maintain a sense of perspective, even in the aftermath of a white-out storm that dwarfed the one swirling outside.

“This in no way, shape or form is a defining point in our season,” Welch said. “We have to evaluate the film. We have to evaluate ourselves, and we have to learn from it and move on. You can’t allow yourself you say you’re shocked or anything like that. It’s just a great basketball team. We all know that. And we know the changes we have to make to improve in areas we didn’t play too well in.”