STORRS, Conn. — Although her team has never competed in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, Dawn Staley certainly has. The South Carolina head coach was a senior at Virginia at 1992 when her second-ranked Cavaliers traveled to Cole Field House and played top-ranked Maryland in front of a crowd of 14,500 — the largest at the time to ever to see a women’s game in the ACC.
From that experience, there are a few nuggets of wisdom Staley can impart to her top-ranked Gamecocks as they prepare for Monday’s 8 p.m. showdown at No. 2 Connecticut in a sold-out Gampel Pavilion, where the Huskies have lost just 19 times since the facility opened in 1990. Near the top of the list: don’t get too jacked up by the environment.
“If you’re not disciplined, it can have you out of whack,” Staley said. “It can cause you to deviate from the game plan, because you want to have an impact. And sometimes having an impact is being calm. But I’m going to let our players play. They’ve got to be able to make plays.”
And for South Carolina (22-0), that doesn’t necessarily mean on the offensive end. Against a Connecticut team that posts gaudy scoring totals, the key may very well be a USC defense which in its last game held Georgia to its lowest offensive output in over six years. Although the Gamecocks’ post game commands much of the attention, Staley has built her program around a disruptive defense that will have to be at its best Monday night.
It’s easy to see why. In coach Geno Auriemma’s precision screen-and-cut offense, Uconn (22-1) averages nearly 90 points per game, is shooting 53 percent from the field and hitting 40 percent of its 3-point attempts. The Huskies scored 80 in a runaway victory at Memphis on Saturday, despite starters Brianna Stewart and Morgan Tuck playing just five and four minutes, respectively.
“You have to have a relentless effort. You have to play each possession, literally from a defensive standpoint. Maybe you need to keep them on defense a little longer, just to take the air out of the ball and reduce the amount of possessions they do get. So controlling tempo is definitely a key,” Staley said.
“I think our players are up for the challenge. (UConn) can’t shoot what they shoot and lose the game. It doesn’t work that way. So we’ve got to figure out how we can decrease that percentage. Maybe it’s through taking the air out of the ball, maybe it’s through relentless effort from a defensive standpoint to make sure we’re contesting all their shots and making it hard for them to catch it where they’re comfortable.”
Connecticut, which has won 21 straight since an overtime loss at Stanford on Nov. 17, thrives on finding and making uncontested shots. The Huskies are also one of the few teams that have height inside to battle USC, which has dominated most opponents in the paint. Stewart is 6-4 and Tuck is 6-2, providing formidable foes for Gamecocks starting forwards Elem Ibiam and Aleighsa Welch, who are 6-4 and 6-foot, respectively.
“The only other team that I can remember that matched up that well with us size-wise was Duke,” said Welch, referring to a 51-50 Gamecocks victory on Dec. 7. “And they probably were a bigger team than us, honestly. So size, it’s not going to be a challenge we haven’t seen this season.”
To former Huskies All-American Rebecca Lobo, the key to the game might be on the bench. Few teams can match the depth of USC, which brings its top two rebounders and second- and third-leading scorers — 6-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates — in as reserves. That could pose a challenge for the Huskies, even though 6-3 Kiah Stokes comes in off the bench.
“Usually in a big matchup, it’s the first four minutes — what are those going to look like?” said Lobo, now an ESPN analyst. “For me, with this matchup, I’m eager to see what the second four minutes look like, what 16 to 12 (minutes) looks like, when A’ja comes in the game, when Coates comes in the game. I’m eager to see that.”
UConn’s players, though, are hardly the only hurdle. USC has been boosted by busloads of supportive fans at its two biggest road games this season, at Duke and Georgia. There will be none of that Monday, which will present instead a crowd of 10,167 Huskies fans and a building where the nine-time national champions have won 147 of their past 151 games.
“I know they’re used to playing at Tennessee, and I know they’re used to playing at Kentucky and the great teams in the SEC. But this is these players’ first time ever playing Connecticut, ever going against Geno Auriemma and kind of the mystique of Connecticut,” Lobo said. “I’m eager to see kind of how they handle that.”
Staley knows first-hand — she scored 19 points and had nine assists to lead her second-ranked Virginia team past No. 1 Maryland, 75-74, back in 1992. The era and the opponent may have changed, but the approach remains the same.
“We have to stay in character and do what we do,” Staley said. “The closer we stay true to what we’ve been looking like for the 22 wins, in that environment, the better off we’re going to be. We’ll probably get a little bump of adrenaline from the environment, the stakes, all of that. But as soon as we get back to playing our style of play is when we’ll play our best basketball.”