The potential for a riveting matchup looms over the title game on Sunday, as UConn could face Mississippi State, which ended the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak on a shot by Morgan William late in overtime in a 2017 Final Four game. Mississippi State will face Louisville in the 2018 semifinals.
Entering Monday’s game, the Huskies acknowledged that all of the pressure was on them and that anything short of a chance at a fifth national title in six seasons would be considered a disappointment. Instead of playing down the burden of expectation, Auriemma and his players embraced it.
UConn had defeated South Carolina (29-7) four times in the past four seasons, including an 83-58 rout on Feb. 1 on the Gamecocks’ home court. In that game, A’ja Wilson, South Carolina’s 6-foot-5 forward and the consensus national player of the year, missed 14 of her 18 shots, some of them unobstructed attempts, others hindered by Williams.
Credit Frank Franklin Ii/Associated Press
At 5-11, Williams is six inches shorter than Wilson but she is a vaulting leaper who finished fifth in the high jump at the 2012 Olympic track and field trials while in high school.
“It’s always a difficult thing guarding A’ja, especially with the height difference,” Williams said. “But I have the advantage of being quicker than her, so as long as I just keep her out of the paint, it is easier to handle her.”
Given the usual reliability of UConn’s defense, Auriemma’s main concern on Monday was the Huskies’ offense: Could it make enough shots?
The answer was an emphatic yes. UConn went 5 for 6 from 3-point range in the first quarter and took a decisive 30-12 lead. One shot turned into a 4-point play for Katie Lou Samuelson (who finished with 17 points) after she was fouled beyond the arc. Another 3-pointer came on a feathery jumper by Dangerfield as time expired.
It was a deficit from which South Carolina could not recover. Wilson finished with 27 points and eight rebounds in a restorative but mostly inconsequential performance. By halftime, the Huskies had hit 9 of 10 shots from beyond the arc to extend their lead to 54-33.
“Coach said to be aggressive, and my teammates were finding me and I was confident and it went in,” Dangerfield said. “I was shaking my head. I couldn’t believe it.”
On Sunday, the often-sarcastic Auriemma whispered to Dangerfield during a news conference, telling her that if she got 10 steals against South Carolina, she would rank only fourth in the starting lineup.
“It’s my daily dose of getting on someone’s nerves,” Auriemma said. “I can’t go more than an hour without doing that.”
A season ago, as a freshman, Dangerfield played erratically. But she was impeccable on Monday in the biggest game of the season. And, for the moment anyway, Auriemma was spared having to walk around in a funny nose and glasses disguise.