UConn women fall to No. 1 South Carolina in Battle 4 Atlantis championship

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UConn appeared almost stunned.

South Carolina grabbed rebound after rebound after rebound, erasing UConn’s double-digit lead.

The No. 2 Huskies just couldn’t find an answer for the top-ranked Gamecocks’ glass work, falling 73-57, in the inaugural Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis championship Monday afternoon in the Bahamas.

The loss is UConn’s first this season and is just the second time South Carolina has beaten the Huskies in the teams’ 11-game history. UConn’s chance at redemption will come in January when it faces the Gamecocks (6-0) in Columbia.

While UConn (3-1) put up a strong first half, including leading by as many as 13, the Huskies ultimately fell apart in the second half, scoring only one field goal in the final 10 minutes.

“For 30 minutes we were better, but the 10 that mattered most, they were,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after the game.

Sophomore Paige Bueckers led UConn with 19 points on 8 of 19 shooting while Evina Westbrook followed with 14 points.

I don’t think she was any good today to be honest with you,” Auriemma said of Bueckers, who had six points in the second half. “I thought the first half there were a lot of great moments that she had but I think for the entire second half I don’t think she was much of a factor. And I don’t know if whether she just got tired or worn down, but it wasn’t the same Paige that we’re used to seeing. ... She just didn’t get enough help today. You’re really good when the other players around you are really good and today, I don’t think we were at all.”

Freshman Azzi Fudd, who had an 18-point performance with six 3-pointers against South Florida Sunday, played just 10 minutes and was scoreless after just one shot attempt.

In a much-anticipated game televised by ESPN, UConn fell to 22-4 in matchups involving the top two ranked teams. UConn is now 7-2 as the No. 2 team in those games and saw its 61-game win streak of regular-season tournaments (which dates back to 1992) come to a close. The loss was UConn’s first as the No. 2 ranked team since 2011 and it’s lowest scoring since February 2020 (fell 74-56 to Oregon).

The game forced a delay in the weekly Associated Press poll that is released each Monday. When the next poll is announced on Tuesday, South Carolina will remain at the top.

Takeaways from UConn’s loss to South Carolina:

South Carolina dominates boards

While UConn was able to make work out of South Carolina’s first-half turnovers, the Gamecocks dominated the game under the basket. At the half, South Carolina led UConn on the glass, 21-13, and in second-chance points, 8-2. It was because of the Gamecocks’ bigs that they were able to open and close the first quarter on 6-0 runs and erase a 13-point lead to three at halftime.

UConn had no answer for South Carolina’s momentum in the second half. The Gamecocks went 7-of-10 from the floor in the first five minutes of the half while the Huskies failed to box out. By the end of the third quarter, South Carolina had 14 offensive rebounds to UConn’s three and 17 second-chance points compared to UConn’s two. The Gamecocks entered the final frame with a three-point lead and complete control of the game’s pace.

South Carolina became the second team to out-rebound the Huskies this season, finishing with 19 offensive boards and 42 total rebounds to UConn’s six and 25. The Gamecocks controlled the final quarter, keeping UConn scoreless for opening five minutes and even forcing a shot clock violation after a Husky timeout. The Huskies’ only field goal in fourth came from a Westbrook 3-pointer.

By the final minutes, UConn was cluttered with sloppy turnovers (19 to South Carolina’s 14) as its offense had fallen apart.

What this tells us: UConn needs a rebound weapon or at least more players to help its post players when they become double teamed. Westbrook said after the game that the team’s guards need to be able to help: “Our bigs did a really good job, especially in the start of the game, boxing their bigger players out. As guards, it is our job to get in there and get a rebound and box their main rebounders out. It’s our job to get in there, get the rebound if they’re (UConn bigs) putting in all the work boxing out their best rebounders.”

South Carolina’s post play advantage

In a game viewed as a battle of post players, UConn senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa was especially strong in the first half, providing aggressive defense against the Gamecocks. She made herself a wall in the interior and put up three major blocks in the first 10 minutes against South Carolina. Her physicality smothered South Carolina and helped force the Gamecocks into committing10 turnovers in the game’s opening 12 minutes.

Nelson-Ododa finished with five blocks along with six points and five rebounds.

“I could tell before the game started that Liv was going to play really well today. I just wished she would have made a couple shots,” Auriemma said. “I think that’s the next thing that’s left for Liv and it’s our fourth game. That was a tough assignment today for her, for our post players.”

But South Carolina’s 6-foot-5 junior Aliyah Boston was the game’s difference-maker with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Boston, from Worcester, Mass., has emerged as one of the best players in the country and joins Bueckers on the AP’s preseason All-American list.

“I just wanted to make sure I was crashing the boards even if I didn’t put it back up, but it gave us another chance for another possession,” Boston said.

Transition, transition, transition

Because of UConn’s early strong defensive pressure, the Huskies found a way around South Carolina’s double and triple coverage on offense. UConn was quick to take advantage of the Gamecocks’ turnovers and got the ball down the court and into the hoop on sharp, smooth passes — particularly from Bueckers. At halftime, the Huskies had 12 assists on their 14 made field goals, led by Bueckers with five.

UConn didn’t waste time on offense and made quick buckets, scoring 13 points off South Carolina’s 11 turnovers. UConn created a double-digit lead in the final minutes of the first quarter off a 18-2 run.

“I don’t know whether we got tired,” Auriemma said. “I thought our transition game was great in the first half. But right now, our half-court offense isn’t very good. It’s early but it’s not very good.”

But that’s where UConn’s surge ended and South Carolina’s began.

“They punched us, and we fell. We didn’t punch back,’ UConn senior Christyn Williams said. “We had a heck of a first half. Things were flowing offensively and defensively. It was just the fourth quarter, really.”

View from South Carolina’s coach Dawn Staley

“Our players are determined. They are resilient. We knew exactly what we had to do,” Staley said. “Especially on the defensive side of the ball. We had to disrupt. UConn’s a team in which, they’re a well-oiled machine. If you allow them to just run their stuff, they make teams look stupid. And we have the personnel to be able to just disrupt and force them into contested shots and not lucky uncontested shots, then you give yourself a chance to win. Our defense did a super job, just for 40 minutes, you didn’t really see the impact in the first half. It is the third and fourth quarters when you started feeling what our defense does to the teams. I’m super proud of our players.”

Husky Notes

Junior Aubrey Griffin missed all three of UConn’s games in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament due to a high ankle sprain. The forward also missed the Huskies’ season opener against Arkansas and their exhibition due to the injury. In last season’s game against the Gamecocks, Aubrey had seven rebounds for the Huskies. Auriemma thinks she would have done the same on Monday had she been healthy: “This would have been a game where Aubrey could have helped big time.” ... Sophomore Mir McLean made her season debut in Monday’s third quarter, coming off the bench for Dorka Juhász. In two minutes, she grabbed down one defensive rebound.

UP NEXT: UConn opens Big East play at Seton Hall on Friday, December 3, at 7 p.m.

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com