UConn fans, Connecticut Fans

South Carolina will play in a different arena against UConn on Monday, but it will still be filled with opposing fans. (Jessica Hill/AP)

COLUMBIA — Win or lose, Monday doesn’t matter. South Carolina has played (and lost to) Connecticut every year since 2015, and it hasn’t affected the Gamecocks’ other runs toward championships, save last year’s defeat in the Elite Eight.

But it’s on the schedule for a reason. Dawn Staley always wants her team to challenge the best; if nothing else, it can serve as a scouting report if USC does run into UConn again when it needs to beat them (like in March or April); and there’s no denying a lot of recruits will watch two powerhouse basketball programs throw down in prime-time on ESPN.

“You got to continue to play them. I don’t think we’re far off (from winning),” Staley said. “It’s a notch in our belt. It isn’t anything more than that.”

The No. 12 Gamecocks (17-5) again head to the frozen north to take on the Huskies, who look surprisingly human this year. They’re at their lowest Top 25 ranking in a dozen years (No. 5) and have lost — horrors! — two games.

Throw in that they’ve not won either of the past two national championships and it seems a stretch longer than Jethro Tull besting Metallica for a Best Metal Grammy.

“They’re still UConn,” USC point guard Ty Harris said. “They’ve had time to mold into the great team that they’ve been.”

The Huskies lost to Louisville and Baylor, each a top-five team, but also crushed Notre Dame by 18 points. It’s still the same dynasty, just with a few new parts.

“A down year?,” Staley incredulously replied. “They lose two games …

“I think with UConn, they’ve always been a well-oiled machine," she added. "They have two pieces that are gone that gave them some experience.”

The Gamecocks will play the Huskies at Hartford’s XL Center, not at UConn’s home arena where they’ve tangled the last two times they’ve met outside the postseason. USC takes a different-looking team into the matchup, one with solid post play but not dominated by it.

There’s also no wide-eyed anticipation from USC’s newcomers to the series. Staley brought up a story of preparing for SEC opener Texas A&M, led by Chennedy Carter, the league’s leading scorer.

Freshman Destanni Henderson said, “I can’t guard her. But she can’t guard me, either.”

“I don’t even think they pay attention to basketball, which is probably a good thing. They’re approaching it just like another game,” Staley said. “Every year we think we got the team to do it, but I feel good about where we are and the personnel we have going into the game.”

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

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