COLUMBIA — That South Carolina has itself a perennial and popular women’s basketball Final Four contender is old news.
Even in a 66-54 loss to No. 1 Connecticut on Monday night at Colonial Life Arena, the No. 2 Gamecocks improved on their 25-point setback in Storrs last year and did so before a raucous sellout crowd of 18,000 and an ESPN2 television audience.
“They have a great fanbase here,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “We couldn’t get into the damn arena. People were lined up from here to Atlanta, it seemed like. We couldn’t get in; guys wouldn’t get out of the way. Cars wouldn’t move.”
Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks (22-1) and the fans who support them have become ambassadors for women’s college basketball, lobbyists for commitment from athletic departments and fanbases across the country that doubt this sport can make an impact.
Monday night’s game wasn’t a big-picture big deal for either team; both are likely locked into another Final Four run with UConn (23-0) the heavy favorite to win its fourth straight national championship. It will not make much of a TV ratings ripple, either.
But the target audience — coaches, players and athletic directors — was surely paying attention.
Maybe not every school can get two men’s basketball players — in this case Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice — to lead cheers before the game. Not every place can start a game with 18,000 people (minus a few hundred UConn fans) waving white towels to the tune of “Sandstorm” before tipoff. Most athletic departments don’t have a spare nickel that isn’t budgeted for football investment these days.
Yet if a few schools get around to thinking women’s basketball might be worth more than a minimal investment for a nice public relations payoff, the Gamecocks and their fans accomplished something Monday night.
“They’re so committed,” Staley said of the fans. “They were disciplined (Monday night); we weren’t. They came, they were loud, they tried to put their energy into our team. And we disappointed them. But hopefully they’re not fair-weather fans. They’re going to be there tomorrow, they’re going to be there the next day. They’ll tell us what we did wrong.”
The largest crowd UConn had played before this season was 11,435 at Ohio State in November, a 100-56 Huskies victory.
Average home attendance for the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion this season: 9,727.
“A lot of these people would be here to support a 22-0 team no matter who was coaching,” South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said. “But Dawn Staley made this kind of game possible.”
The women’s game needed something like this, and all the fanfare. While the sport makes for fine entertainment at its best, the Top 25 trends toward top-heavy, with UConn the immovable object.
The Huskies easily handled South Carolina a year ago in Storrs, winning 87-62. The big blue machine rolls on, starring Breanna Stewart as the toughest matchup in all of college basketball. The 6-4 senior from North Syracuse, N.Y., wins with rugged inside play and a sweet 3-point shot. She also has a good sense of humor and teamwork, and is an 85-percent free-throw shooter.
Stewart scored 25 points with 10 rebounds and five blocks Monday night.
Count on Staley to counter with progress.
“I go way back with Dawn,” Tanner said. “She was playing at Virginia when I was coaching at N.C. State. I saw Dawn play basketball, and I heard some of the things she said while she was on the court.”
UConn wins with players from all over the country; only one player on the roster is from Connecticut. Staley, meanwhile, has prospered with in-state talent, including 2015 senior Aleighsa Welch (Goose Creek High School) and five current Gamecocks.
The next elite step is a steady flow of out-of-state prospects when South Carolina high schools are unable to produce top talent for a few years at a time.
Monday night was a big move in that direction, and then some. The Gamecocks even in defeat might have helped grow interest and investment in women’s basketball.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff