Sports

Gamecocks take down the Huskies

Marquee matchup concludes first B4A women’s tourney

In a matchup between the two top ranked teams in the nation, for the first-ever Bad Boy Mowers Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis (B4A) title, it was the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks who persevered inside the Imperial Arena at Atlantis, Paradise Island.

The Gamecocks turned up their defensive pressure in the fourth quarter, holding the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies to just three points in that stanza, to run away with the title, solidifying their spot as the number one team in the nation. They outscored the Huskies, 16-3, in the final period and won going away, 73-57, in a battle between the two behemoths.

At the end of three quarters, the number two ranked Huskies were right in the game, trailing just 57-54. However, the Gamecocks’ relentless pressure forced some turnovers and the Huskies failed to develop any offensive consistency. They shot just 1-for-10 in the final frame, a three pointer from the right corner by redshirt senior guard Evina Westbrook.

“Our players were active… we knew exactly what we had to do, which was focus on the defensive side of the ball,” said Gamecocks’ head coach Dawn Staley afterward. “If you allow them to run their stuff, they make teams look stupid. If you have the personnel to disrupt and force them into contested shots, you give yourself a chance to win. Our defense did a super job for 40 minutes. You didn’t really see the impact in the first half but it’s in the third and fourth quarters when you saw what our defense does to teams. I’m super proud of what they were able to do today.”

After struggling for much of the first half, the Gamecocks’ backcourt of senior Destanni Henderson and junior Zia Cooke came alive in the second half. They were impactful in their pressure on the ball defensively and utilized their speed on the offensive side to get in the lane and create opportunities for themselves or their teammates.

“Destanni Henderson pushes the tempo for us on both sides of the basketball. She’s probably one of the quickest players in the country, and she’s learned how to utilize her speed,” said Staley. “She changed her shot selection from the first quarter to the second and third quarters and she just became more deliberate. She’s a seasoned senior who has been around our program for a long time, and when you have that, it increases your chances of winning. We’re super proud of her.”

Junior forward Aliyah Boston from the US Virgin Islands was a force down low for the Gamecocks. She tallied 22 points and pulled down 15 rebounds – both game highs. Cooke added 17 points, and Henderson had an all-around game with 15 points, six assists, six steals and four rebounds.

One of the team’s greatest contributions on the day came from reserve player Destiny Littleton – a senior guard. She hit two huge three-point shots at key moments of the game – one to give them a 57-54 lead going into the fourth quarter, and the other with 4:38 remaining in the game to extend the lead to nine, 66-57, after Westbrook’s three brought the Huskies to within six.

“We’re experienced, and we have players who come off the bench who give us a different look enabling us to up the ante when it comes to pressuring in a different way,” said Staley. “In Destiny Littleton, her defense isn’t her best thing, but she does what she does best which is stay in front of somebody, or send them into our bigs. That helps us, and she hit two big shots for us. I’m just happy for our players who were determined enough to hang in there for 40 minutes and win the basketball game.”

The Huskies were led by sophomore guard Paige Bueckers with 19 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Westbrook added 14 points and three assists and senior guard Christyn Williams was their only other player in double figures with 10. Top recruit in the 2020-2021 class, freshman Azzi Fudd, finished scoreless after scoring 18 points in their semifinal win over South Florida.

“The combination of their defensive pressure in the fourth quarter and our inability to handle that pressure was basically the game,” said Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma. “For 30 minutes, I thought that we played exactly the way we wanted to play. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We just ran out of gas and fell apart. Not all of those things that happened in the fourth quarter are fixable, but certainly some are. They’re just a better team than us right now – a li’l deeper and they were quicker to the ball. The team you saw today – the next four months from now, they could be a completely different team. We want to be able to use every experience to build on. This team has some work to do. We’re going to have to work really hard. It’s not going to come easy. We just have to be better.”

Auriemma said their half court offense was not good on Monday and South Carolina was just quicker to the ball.

After trailing 6-0, the Huskies went on a 9-0 scoring run and scored 20 of the game’s next 22 points to take a 20-8 lead with 2:26 remaining in the first quarter. The Gamecocks scored the quarter’s final six points to pull within 20-14 after one. The Huskies got out to a fast start in the second quarter, going on an 8-1 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 28-15. From there, it was a 29-point turnaround. The Gamecocks went on a 6-0 run to get back to within single digits in the second quarter, and after a mini run by the Huskies, the Gamecocks closed the quarter on a 10-2 run to pull to within three points, 36-33, at the half.

A three-point play from Boston with 8:18 remaining in the third gave the Gamecocks their first lead since early in the game, 40-38. The Gamecocks increased their lead to six but the Huskies kept close, pulling even a few times before Littleton was able to give the Gamecocks the lead for good with her three-point shot with 33 seconds left in the third.

The Gamecocks took complete control of the game in the fourth quarter and pulled away for the comfortable win.

“This was great. The atmosphere was great. To have us here for a women’s tournament – the first time that we’re having a women’s tournament here, is a great feeling,” said Staley. “We’ve been missing out on this kind of atmosphere for 10 years. It’s good to measure yourself against the best, and to be here is a great feeling. Paradise met my void, and that was a great experience.”

This is the 10th year of Battle 4 Atlantis, but the first time for a women’s collegiate basketball tournament featuring major National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I teams. The men’s 

tournament will be held over Thanksgiving. 

Boston claimed the first-ever Bad Boy Mowers Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. She was joined on the all-tournament team by her teammate Zia Cooke, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Oklahoma’s Taylor Robertson and the University of South Florida’s (USF) Elena Tsineke.

The Gamecocks shot 46.3 percent from the field, making 31-of-67 shots while UConn shot 44 percent, making 22-of-50 shots. The Gamecocks dominated on the glass as they out-rebounded UConn, 42-25, including 19 offensive rebounds, and they forced a whopping 19 turnovers. They also took control in the paint, outscoring UConn 36-24 in that area and had 17 second-chance points to just two for UConn.

The Huskies and Gamecocks will play each other again on January 27 with the Huskies visiting the No. 1 Gamecocks at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.

In the third-place game on Monday, the University of South Florida Bulls took down the Oregon Ducks, 71-62.

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Sheldon Longley

Sheldon Longley joined The Nassau Guardian in January 2001 as a sports reporter. He was promoted to sports editor in 2008. Sheldon has an extensive background in sports reporting. He covered three Olympic Games and three world championships, along with multiple smaller regional and local games.

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