COLUMBIA — It’s on the schedule for several reasons, and it’s always meant something. Dawn Staley wants to measure her team against the best, and there aren’t any better than the program that’s been the country’s best for the past 20 years.
The fact of the South Carolina-Connecticut series that Staley restarted in 2015, though, is that while of course the Gamecocks would love to win, the regular-season matchup never really mattered, win or lose. Slaying the UConn dragon anytime is a program goal, but if there’s a perfect time to do it, it’s in March in the NCAA Tournament. That’s when a win over UConn would really remove the last pang of hunger from the Gamecocks’ bellies.
But as fourth-ranked UConn visits No. 1 USC on Monday, there’s an incentive that ranks above beating the Huskies for the first time, and just below beating them in March. The Gamecocks want to keep that number in front of their name, and not just in the Associated Press poll that will cease its relevance at the end of the regular season.
Get this one, and USC can pretty much lock up one of the four national No. 1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament and most likely lock up the overall No. 1 spot.
“We didn’t talk about it with our team, but it’s something. I think we can strengthen our hold on being a No. 1 team and No. 1 overall and hopefully being in Greenville,” Staley said. “You win the game, it takes care of itself. You lose the game, then everybody else has their opinion on what’s what. Hopefully we can squash that and win the game.”
The women’s NCAA Tournament’s regional sites (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds) stepped away from its usual this year by not putting a site in UConn’s backyard (next year, there will again be one in Albany, N.Y., the same place where UConn eliminated USC from the Elite Eight in 2018). This year, Oregon seems set to be the top seed in Portland, Ore.; Baylor should be headed to Dallas; and Fort Wayne, Ind., is probably looking at Louisville.
Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena (also the site of the SEC women’s tournament) is beckoning USC. Get one of the four No. 1 seeds and the Gamecocks have the chance to make the Final Four without leaving their own state (USC has probably already done enough to host the first two rounds at Colonial Life Arena).
Get the top No. 1 seed? By draw, that should mean the lowest-ranked No. 2 seed will be assigned to Greenville as well, which on paper makes it easier for the Gamecocks to advance to New Orleans for their third Final Four in six years.
The NCAA women’s selection committee revealed their top-16 seeds in an early draw last week and USC was No. 1, with UConn No. 5. The Huskies are bidding for a No. 1 seed and seemingly will have to hold off Louisville to do it.
UConn and Louisville each lost last week, Louisville twice. For the Huskies, beating USC is their last chance to really burnish their No. 1 chops.
For the Gamecocks, they’re trying not to listen to the outside noise, but it’s accurate. UConn is still a worldly talented team.
But if it’s ever going to happen, this year, where UConn was soundly flayed by Baylor and Oregon and hasn’t really beaten anybody of note, and the game’s in Columbia …
“It was pretty close. I’m glad that I’m here,” said center Aliyah Boston, who picked the Gamecocks over UConn after playing high school ball in Massachusetts. “I’m really excited, but it’s just like any other game that we’ve played. Just got to be ready.”
The series has been one-sided (as have nearly all series with UConn opponents), the Huskies winning six games by an average of 20 points. Staley loves the exposure her program and the women’s game receives from the matchup (Monday night is on national TV) and if anybody can compete with UConn, that’s automatically a chance to compete for the national title.
It’s only a tiny sliver of fandom that grumbles that the Gamecocks can’t be elite until they beat UConn, which considering that only 15 teams have ever won an NCAA women’s championship - and USC is one of them - is nonsense. And it’s not like one win over the Huskies, regular season or tournament, overcomes those 11 championships UConn has stacked like cordwood in coach Geno Auriemma’s office.
Getting this one, even if one in March would be better, does mean something. If nothing else, Staley is running out of things to do in her illustrious career.
She has never beaten UConn. And isn’t shy about wanting to.
“Absolutely. Yeah,” she said. “Who likes to keep losing?”