Heavyweights South Carolina, UConn spar for trip to Final Four

By The Sports Xchange  |  March 25, 2018 at 11:23 PM
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The road to a 12th national championship has been paved in marshmallows thus far for Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut women's basketball team.

With one pivotal matchup on Monday, however, all that ease disappears.

The Huskies (35-0) will square off with Dawn Staley and defending national champion South Carolina (29-6) in the Albany Region final at the Times Union Center.

A year after the Gamecocks became the first team to unseat the Huskies from their perch above the rest of women's college hoops since 2012, the two teams face off with a Final Four berth on the line.

It would be Staley's third in four years after jump-starting a South Carolina team that had never had success on the national scale. It would be Auriemma's 18th -- and 11th in a row.

"I'm excited to get back to the Elite Eight," Staley said. "Obviously, I don't know a whole lot of people outside of our camp thought we would be here today, but it's always good to prove others wrong and be odds-beaters."

For UConn, Auriemma need only tap into its taste for revenge.

The Huskies are not often surprised, as they were last season in a stunning Final Four overtime loss to Mississippi State. Watching Staley and the Gamecocks cut down the nets was an unfamiliar feeling for the team, which had won four straight titles.

And after a tune-up from Duke in the Sweet 16 -- after breezing through the first weekend of the tournament by a 113-point scoring margin, the Huskies beat the Blue Devils by 13 -- UConn is primed for the prizefight.

"Today wasn't one of those games where you just run up and down and shoot 25 3s and everything goes great," Auriemma told reporters after the win. "You have to grind it out against a good team. That's part of what this tournament is all about. So I'm proud of these guys because we had to do a lot of things today to win the game, and our defense was fabulous."

South Carolina comes into the matchup battle-tested after its easiest possible path: After defeating 15th-seeded North Carolina A&T in the opening round, the Gamecocks beat two upset-minded teams -- No. 10 seed Virginia, which upended No. 7 seed Cal in the first round, and No 11 seed Buffalo, which upset No. 3 seed Florida State in the second round.

After their 79-63 Sweet 16 win over South Florida, the Gamecocks now have the momentous task of taking on the top team in the land.

Or, at least, the top contender for their title from last year.

"The last time we played them, we kind of got out to a really early run," UConn's Gabby Williams said of the team's lone regular-season matchup, an 83-58 Huskies win on Feb. 1. "I don't think any of us are expecting it to be that easy. We know they're going to put up a fight.

"They don't -- A'ja (Wilson) doesn't want her career to be over, college career to be over on Monday. We know they're going to put up a fight, and it's going to be a battle."

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