South Carolina breaks UConn hex, seals status as nation’s No. 1 team

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — They’ve been waiting a long time for this here. It was the last “big” thing the South Carolina women’s basketball program had yet to do. One final hurdle in the program’s rise to national prominence. And before a passionately loud full house, the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks did it.

Actually, they didn’t just beat UConn for the first time, they dominated the Huskies, 70-52. UConn has lost three games by at least 15 points in a single season for the first time since 1992-93, having lost to Baylor by 16 points on Jan. 9 and to Oregon by 18 points on Feb. 3. By this point, it has been pretty well established that by the lofty standards of the 11-time NCAA champions, this season’s Huskies aren’t at their typical level.

Through Monday’s games, ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme put UConn as a No. 2 seed and at No. 6 overall on the S-curve, with little chance to return to the top line since the Huskies’ only remaining games are in the American Athletic Conference, which ranks ninth in conference RPI.

Meanwhile, the Gamecocks further cemented their hold on a No. 1 seed that would have them in the Greenville Regional, just over an hour from their campus. The SEC tournament will be there, too, meaning the Gamecocks could make advance to the Final Four without leaving the state of South Carolina. The Final Four is in New Orleans.

Checking this victory off the list mattered to coach Dawn Staley, whose program won the 2017 NCAA championship and has become the standard-bearer of the SEC, but still was winless against UConn. Overall, the Huskies were 8-0 against South Carolina, with seven of those losses on Staley’s slate. The closest she’d come before Monday was a 66-55 loss in 2017. The average margin of defeat in those seven games: 21.3 points.

In other words, this was cathartic for the Gamecocks and their fans as they put the Huskies on the other end of things — with the Gamecocks in control from the start, coming up with key rebounds and making the Huskies look frazzled at times.

Was this a must-win for South Carolina? No. But the Gamecocks needed it from an emotional standpoint, especially seniors Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. With so much rightly made of the Gamecocks’ fabulous freshmen — led by Aliyah Boston, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds Monday — Harris and Herbert Harrigan still deserve a huge amount of credit for how this team has progressed ahead of schedule, in Staley’s mind.

Harris has been the captain of this ship, and she led the way calmly and confidently Monday, finishing with team highs of 19 points and 11 assists, with no turnovers. Herbert Harrigan had 10 points and seven rebounds, while freshman Zia Cooke, had 15 points.

Baylor looked very strong against UConn, as did Oregon. But make no mistake, South Carolina showed — if there were somehow any doubts — that the Gamecocks are right there atop the conversation for an NCAA title this year, too.

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