Spur of the Moment: ‘It’s still the perfect storm’ — experts break down No. 1 UConn vs. No. 2 USC

Head coach Geno Auriemma and then-No. 2 Connecticut defeated then-No. 1 South Carolina 87-62 last season in Storrs , Conn. The rematch is tonght in Columbia. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

COLUMBIA — The top-ranked Connecticut women were at Colonial Life Arena early Monday afternoon, going through their pre-game shootaround in a building which promises to be a bit more raucous with 18,000 people crammed into it at 7 p.m. A curtain separated the playing floor from the lower concourse (which reporters traversed to interview the South Carolina men’s team), but there was no need to peek to know what the Huskies are going to do tonight.

They’re going to run that same, Swiss-watch precision offense they always have under Geno Auriemma, a glorious testament to spacing and exactitude. They’re going to leave the block open, they’re going to cut along the baseline, and they’re going to knock down almost every open look you give them. That’s what UConn does, and they excel at it, to the point where only one opponent has beaten them the past three seasons.

That 22-0 record, one shared by the second-ranked Gamecocks, is impressive enough. But then there’s this: since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Huskies are 100-1. Goodness. And they’ve gotten there by running their stuff better than you run yours. No tricks. Just great players in a great system.

It’s going to be quite a feat for South Carolina to try and take that down. In the run-up to tonight’s game, we spoke with two of the top voices in women’s college basketball: Debbie Antonelli, a Mount Pleasant resident who was a starter at North Carolina State and is now one of the best analysts in the game; and Rebecca Lobo, a former All-American at UConn who now does studio analysis at ESPN.

They provided plenty of great insight which we used in stories the past few days, including how this game might break down from an Xs and Os standpoint. We used a lot of that in recent pieces (most notably this one in the role outside shooting plays in such a post-oriented matchup), but I didn’t want the rest of it to go unused, particularly given that this is the most-anticipated women’s college basketball game of the regular season.

So, here are some other comments relating to tonight’s matchup:

Antonelli, on UConn’s 3-point shooting:

“What they’re really good at is, they don’t give up a lot of 3s, and they don’t foul. So you have to hit enough twos to beat them. On the other side because of their transition game, they’re going to shoot the 3, and they’re going to shoot it in transition. It’s not necessarily how many 3s they make, it’s when they make them. You go back to (last season’s) national championship game against Notre Dame, Notre Dame did not give up a transition 3 until about five and half minutes left. That was a back breaker. It’s a momentum-builder, it’s an emotional play for them, and it allows them to set their defense.”

Lobo, on how Geno manages big games in a schedule full of blowouts playing in the American Athletic Conference:

“I think he’s better at that than anyone else, because he has so much experience with it. For players, these are the games that really get your juices going. They really get you excited to play. Not to discount the games they play in conference, but especially the starters, you want to be out on the floor for 40 minutes. In the games in the American, there are times when a (Breanna) Stewart is not playing in the fourth quarter. Players are ready for this. They thrive on this. You’ve never seen UConn, at least not in the last 10 years, shy away from the big moment. They love the big moment. And more than anything, I think they’re excited they’ve got a game in front of them that’s the reason they came to Connecticut — to play in these kinds of games, in these atmospheres, with this much on the line. Even though it’s a regular-season game ... they love it.”

Antonelli, on where the game might be decided:

“I think the game is going to be determined on the elbows, by both teams. Who makes the most shots from the 15-foot range, around the elbow. South Carolina likes to run a lot of its offense through there with A’ja Wilson, who’s very good there. Both teams will try to take away the 3, both teams will work really hard to take away the transition. Breanna Stewart is as quality a shot-blocker as any of the players for South Carolina. For me, if I was on the game, this is where I’d be focusing my attention — how many plays from the elbows can both teams make to win the game? I think that’s where it’s going to be decided.”

Lobo, on the inside matchup of USC’s A’ja Wilson against UConn’s Breanna Stewart:

“Because A’ja Wilson has gotten so good at attacking when she gets the ball at the free throw line, it will be interesting to see if she can get Stewart into foul trouble. Obviously that’s the best way to defend Stewart, to get her off the court. And she’s not a player who gets in foul trouble very often. I don’t think she’s fouled out in the course of her college career. But you can help yourself if you can attack the other team’s best player. And if Stewart is on Wilson, I think Wilson would have to attack and try to get Stewart in foul trouble.”

Antonelli, on countering UConn’s inside-outside game:

“(UConn) has a freshman, Katie Lou Samuelson, who’s a terrific 3-point shooter. She’s played very well. Other teams don’t have the same size (as USC), so I think you can play Breanna Stewart 1-on-1 in the post. Now, she’s a nightmare matchup for anyone, and she’ll be a problem for South Carolina, because she’s the best player in the country. But you don’t have to bring a double to her. You can play her straight up. You have more size, you have more depth, you have more fouls to use. You’re going to have to make her earn it, and then you can cover the 3-point line better. That’s an advantage for South Carolina. Make (Stewart) make a play over (Wilson’s) size and length. Don’t double her, and turn her into a passer, and then she throws a skip-pass to a 3-point shooter, and then you get beat by the 3.”

Lobo on UConn without Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the NCAA’s all-time 3-point shooter, who burned USC last season and is now in the WNBA:

“Even when they had Kaleena, they’re not a team that relies a ton on the 3-point shot. It obviously helps them out, it helps them spread things, and they can be deadly in transition when they come down and drain it. But I don’t think that’s ever really been their bread and butter. Their balance, and their ability to score from all over the floor, has been their calling card. So I wouldn’t put them at a huge disadvantage.”

Antonelli, on which team is facing more pressure:

“When they played last year up at Connecticut, I called that the perfect storm for (USC head coach) Dawn (Staley). You’re undefeated, you’re the No. 1 team in the country, and you’re playing in Connecticut, and no one thinks you’re going to win the game. So it was a perfect storm for them to go in and play pressure-free. They struggled a little bit, maybe it was the moment, the bigness of the event. I think they’re past all that. This year, they’re undefeated, they’re No. 2 in the country, and it’s still the perfect storm. The pressure is still not on them. No one thinks you’re going to win. Connecticut is the elitist program.

“Has Dawn made strides? Absolutely. But if you’re a player playing in this game, if you’re (USC guard) Tiffany Mitchell, you can’t wait. You cannot wait, because of the competitive nature you play with, and what you have what Connecticut doesn’t. The size has to be a factor. From a matchup standpoint, to me, I’m scripting my first five or six plays, and whoever Breanna Stewart is guarding, I am attacking. If she’s in man, I’m going right at her every single time. I’m making her defend.”

And finally this somewhat ominous (from a South Carolina perspective) comment from Lobo, on what it takes to bring UConn down:

“If UConn’s playing at the top of its game, with everyone healthy and everyone on the floor and not in foul trouble, I don’t think there’s a team in the country that can beat them. But if they have a player in foul trouble, or if they have an off night shooting, or if (injury-prone UConn forward) Morgan Tuck can’t go full speed, a team like South Carolina can win. “

That’s all for now. The arena should be wild tonight. More from there later on.