COLUMBIA — It’s the matchup inside the matchup, a battle of All-Americans within a clash of No. 1 versus No. 2. But if South Carolina is to topple top-ranked Connecticut, the Gamecocks will need more than A’ja Wilson getting the better of Breanna Stewart inside.
That will unquestionably be the premier individual matchup within the season’s most anticipated women’s game, but as last season proved, the difference can be outside the paint. It was the 3-point shooting of former UConn guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis that broke open last year’s showdown in Gampel Pavilion, and the onus will be on USC’s guards to turn the tables Monday night.
“Our bigs draw a lot of attention,” said Gamecocks guard Tiffany Mitchell. “So to alleviate that pressure on them, we’re going to have to knock down some shots.”
The top-ranked Huskies (22-0) will bring eye-popping offensive numbers into a sold-out Colonial Life Arena. Stewart is shooting 59 percent from the field, but that’s not even tops among UConn’s starters — that honor belongs to Gabby Williams, shooting 63 percent. Two other starters are shooting better than 53 percent for the Huskies, who feast on open looks in head coach Geno Auriemma’s precision offense.
Up against that kind of buzzsaw, converting possessions into points will be paramount for the second-ranked Gamecocks (22-0), who boast a 69-percent shooter in forward Alaina Coates, a 53 percent shooter in Wilson, and shoot at a 46 percent clip as a team.
“We’ve got to be able to score,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “They’re going to score, because that’s what they do. We’ve got to be able to not have empty possessions, where you get a great shot, but it’s deflating when you don’t make that shot. So it’s both sides of the ball. You just can’t concentrate on one side of the ball to beat a team like UConn.”
And the Gamecocks can’t rely just on points in the paint, even though USC is as effective at scoring from that area as any team in the country. Mosqueda-Lewis, now in the WNBA, showed with her 23 points a year ago how a perimeter attack can alter the complexion of a game between two teams so strong in the post. USC could be more challenged in that area, given that it shoots 31 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s going to be vital for South Carolina to make shots. Connecticut is so potent offensively, South Carolina can’t have an off night,” said former UConn star Rebecca Lobo, now an analyst for ESPN.
“They can’t have a night where they score in single-digits in the first quarter. They can’t have a night where they turn the basketball over or where one of their perimeter players can’t buy a basket. That can’t happen. Khadijah Sessions needs to be a scoring threat, even if that’s in transition making layups.”
Sessions, a senior from Myrtle Beach, is USC’s starting point guard, known more for her defense and floor leadership than offense. Although she canned a three-quarter-court bomb last week against Kentucky, she’s averaging 6.5 points per game. Monday could bring the potential for more.
Auriemma “is not going to guard Khadijah Sessions. If I’m Dawn, I’m already telling Khadijah, ‘They’re not going to guard you,’ ” said Debbie Antonelli, a television analyst who played at North Carolina State and lives in Mount Pleasant.
“They’re not going to guard her. Don’t worry about making a mistake, just make a couple of plays. Hit a couple of shots, make them guard you, attack the paint. Do something to make them guard you, because they’re going to sit on top of the post play.”
Wilson will almost certainly be tasked with attacking the basket, going right at Stewart and trying to get the reigning national player of the year in foul trouble. That’s a tall order, given that the senior Stewart has never fouled out of a game in her career. USC hitting a few perimeter shots would certainly help free things up inside.
“That could be a major key,” Wilson said. “That’s something our guards have been really working on … in practice. I’m excited to see them come out. And then, you’re at home. You get that home crowd underneath you and everything’s flowing. I feel like if we just stick with our system — and that’s in our system, hitting those open outside shots — it will release a lot of pressure off us and things will come together.”
That’s just what happened for the Huskies last season in Storrs, when Mosqueda-Lewis’ 3s whipped the crowd into a frenzy and opened things up for Stewart to score 22 inside. And it’s the same formula South Carolina could follow to an upset Monday night.
“If South Carolina is able to have one of those games were Tina Roy is hot from the perimeter and Sessions can hit just a couple in the big moments like she did in the game against Vanderbilt,” Lobo said, “I think that’s the situation where at 9 o’clock, Dawn Staley can be celebrating.”