Rivalry 101: Benefit from UConn lesson

USC’s Khadijah Sessions looks to pass as Connecticut’s Moriah Jefferson defends Monday. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

STORRS, Conn. — The moment was hardly too big for South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, a Naismith Hall of Fame player and three-time Olympic gold medalist. But her temporarily No. 1-ranked, formerly undefeated Gamecocks got advanced schooling on what it takes to win on a big basketball stage during Monday night’s 87-62 loss to No. 2 Connecticut.

Welcome to Gampel Pavilion, home of the greatest tradition and toughest crowd in the sport.

Next time, South Carolina will fare better against a top team, or in a hostile environment sprinkled with bare-chested frat brothers, or both.

And there will be a next time.

The only thing better than No. 1 vs. No. 2 pitting the established power with nine NCAA championships against new kids on the title contender block is a long, loud series.

Round Two is tentatively scheduled for the Final Four in Tampa.

A certain meeting will happen next season in Columbia.

“This is absolutely part of our journey,” Staley said. “In order to accomplish some milestones that we have this particular year, this is part of our journey. I think each and every time we need to learn a lesson.

“This isn’t a destination game for us. We have a lot of basketball left to play.”

As sure as taking the floor at UConn will make South Carolina better, this rivalry can lift women’s basketball. Thousands of people Monday night watched the Gamecocks play for the first time, and many will come back for more.

Take it from Cheryl Reeve, head coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, on hand for reasons professional (scouting) and personal (on UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s 2016 Olympic coaching staff with Staley).

“From my perspective, as a WNBA talent evaluator, it’s exciting to see that much talent together on the same floor and see how the game has grown,” Reeve said. “The competitive fire between these two programs is fun — Dawn’s style and Geno’s style are so very, very different. It’s great for the game. We need this. We need more of this 1-2 stuff.”

Tennis is best served with rivalries. So is golf, college football and the highest level of basketball competition.

“Go back and look at the NBA,” Reeve said. “It wasn’t until Magic vs. Bird that it really took off.”

Women’s basketball had something going — complete with animosity — between UConn and Tennessee when former Volunteers head coach Pat Summit was winning eight NCAA titles. This rivalry will only improve as South Carolina gets more big-game experience.

“I told Dawn, ‘I hope we play you in Tampa,’ ” Auriemma said after the Huskies improved to 23-1.

Monday night, it was if the Gamecocks didn’t buy into how good UConn is at both ends of the court. The good work of Aleighsa Welch, Tiffany Mitchell and A’ja Wilson was done in by 17 team turnovers and too many open looks for UConn.

“You look at things you have to take away from the game,” said Welch, a senior from Goose Creek High School. “That’s what we’re playing for. If you put too much into it, you kind of wrap your whole season around one game, and that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

The Storrs trip came with extras for the South Carolina players. If they didn’t like record piles of New England snow, they were all ears while attending Monday’s news conference celebrating the Olympic staff. Wilson, the Gamecocks’ standout freshman, got hold of a microphone. She made like a reporter and asked one of the questions.

“What qualities do you look for in a (2016 Olympic team) player?” said Wilson, who was heavily recruited by UConn out of Columbia’s Heathwood Hall Episcopal School.

Auriemma: “My particular favorites are smart (alecks) who grab the microphone.”

Staley, acting as the “dream merchant” for her players, was happy to have them hear the Olympic coaches go on about Team USA pride and sacrifice.

“You talk about what you think success looks like and feels like and sounds like,” Staley said, “but when you hear other coaches say the same things that you’ve been preaching, I think it hits home a little bit. I saw them nodding. I saw them smiling.”

There were not as many gleeful looks as the Gamecocks walked out of Gampel Pavilion late Monday night into a blast of frigid air.

They have almost two months to warm up for Tampa.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff