The wrath of UConn

Guard Tiffany Mitchell drives to the basket in the first half of second-ranked South Carolina's game Monday night against No. 1 Connecticut. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA — With the sellout crowd of 18,000 at Colonial Life Arena loud and engaged well before the opening tip, the energy in the building matched or exceeded anything South Carolina faced a season ago. But in terms of basketball, the Gamecocks still have work to do to catch up to Connecticut.

That much was evident Monday night, when the biggest crowd ever to see a women’s basketball game in the Palmetto State was silenced by the 10-time national champions. Breanna Stewart scored 25, and second-ranked South Carolina couldn’t muster enough offense to keep up with the top-ranked Huskies in a 66-54 loss than ended USC’s 45-game home winning streak.

“I’m not surprised by what happened tonight,” said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. “We knew we were playing a great team. We knew we were playing a team that’s almost unbeatable on their home court. They’re probably going to go back to the Final Four like they did last year. They’re that good.”

Although South Carolina (22-1) trailed by as many as 21 points in the third quarter, Monday’s contest was a closer game than last year’s 87-62 loss in Storrs, Conn. And it left Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley looking forward to the next time, perhaps at the Final Four in Indianapolis.

“The hard part is to get back there. The easier part is to play UConn again,” she said. “I think our players understand what the road is ahead of us. If we get to that point, the more times you play UConn, the better feel you have for them.”

The capacity crowd, much of which was lined up outside two hours prior to tip-off, was the largest to see an NCAA women’s basketball game this season. It watched the Gamecocks fall into an offensive funk early, and again in a third quarter where the Huskies (23-0) effectively secured their 60th consecutive victory.

USC forward A’ja Wilson, the Gamecocks’ leading scorer at 16.7 points per game, limped to the locker room with a lower left leg injury with 4:19 remaining in the half. Wilson, who has battled shin splints for much of this season, said she was kicked or kneed in the leg while battling for a loose ball.

Wilson didn’t return to the court until 28 seconds remained in the third quarter. In the interim, Gamecocks forward Alaina Coates fell into foul trouble, and what had been a manageable deficit threatened to get out of hand. USC cut the lead to 13 on a basket by Sarah Imovbioh, but then went scoreless for 4:50 as UConn finished the period on a 10-2 run.

“A team like UConn, you can’t go possessions without scoring. They kind of make you pay for it. That’s kind of tough when they really put points on the board,” said Wilson, who finished with 13 points, tying Imovbioh for the team lead.

“I know when the ball’s not going in, you want to force something up because you see what the other team’s doing. They’re putting up numbers. But you really have to stick with the system, and I feel like we had a hard time doing that because we were just too anxious to get something up.”

South Carolina shot 3 of 17 in the crucial third quarter when UConn took control. The Gamecocks held the Huskies to a season-low in points — but were limited to a season-low themselves. USC’s guards shot a combined 7 for 31, although Tiffany Mitchell scored 12 points.

“They do put pressure on your offense to have to keep up with them,” Staley said. “And when you don’t take the right kind of shot, the ill-advised shot, they make you pay, time and time again.”

Morgan Tuck added 16 for UConn, which went through its own offensive funk in the fourth quarter, but by then was far enough ahead that it didn’t matter. In the crucial stretches the ball went to Stewart, who sent a message by spinning off Wilson for a layup on the game’s first possession, and converted a 3-pointer and a three-point play in the third-quarter run which sealed it.

“These are the reasons we come to UConn, to play these big-time games, to be on somebody else’s home court where they have a sellout crowd and everybody’s cheering against you,” Stewart said. “That’s exciting for us. The odds are against us, and we have to find a way to fight and win the game.”

For USC, it was another small step. Staley felt her team was more competitive Monday than in last year’s blowout at Gampel Pavilion, and more chances are ahead — the series between the Huskies and Gamecocks has been extended for at least two more seasons. Against UConn, you take any signs of progress you can get.

“If you can feel good about a loss,” Staley said, “I feel good about how we handled UConn.”