Women’s national championship: South Carolina cements itself as powerhouse

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Writer

Dawn Staley didn’t wear a Louis Vuitton jacket to lose the national championship game.

That kind of outfit looks good only when you’re cutting down nets and holding up a trophy. Which is exactly what Staley did Sunday night after South Carolina beat UConn 64-49 in the NCAA Women’s Basketball final.

This was the Gamecocks’ second national title in five seasons, and now Staley is 2-0 in championship games. Conversely, this was the Huskies’ first loss in a title game ever. Heading into the matchup, Geno Auriemma’s program was a mind-boggling 11-0 in national championship games. 

Now it’s 11-1. UConn finished the season with six losses, the most the program has had since 2004-05.

“UConn is not only a great team, they’re a great tradition,” Staley said. “They’re a part of our women’s basketball history, and you can’t really take that away from them. But today, it was divinely ordered for us to be champions today. We weren’t going to be denied.”

As soon as she got her hands on the trophy, Staley brought it over to the South Carolina band to celebrate. Then, while standing on the victory podium, she gave a shout-out to the practice squad players for “accepting roles that aren’t favorable” and helping prepare the team for this game and every other game before it.

And this South Carolina team certainly was prepared. Destanni Henderson went off, saving a career-high performance for her final college game to win a national championship. The senior scored 26 points on 9-of-20 shooting and went 3-of-6 from 3-point range. She used her speed to lock down UConn star Paige Bueckers, making it incredibly difficult for Bueckers to get in a rhythm outside of a few scoring spurts that resulted in 14 total points.

“We’ve been working so hard, and it finally paid off,” Henderson said.

Aliyah Boston, who was officially named national player of the year and defensive player of the year just a few days ago, was also named the Final Four’s most outstanding player after recording her 30th double-double of the season. She scored 11 points with 16 rebounds and, after accepting her award on stage, took the microphone and gave a shout-out to WNBA legend Candace Parker, who was cheering her on in the crowd.

Boston had been waiting for this moment all year. Last season, she missed a putback at the buzzer in the Final Four against eventual champion Stanford, and photos of her crying were all over the internet. This time, as the confetti fell from the Target Center ceiling in Minneapolis, Boston flashed a huge smile to the TV cameras.

“It feels amazing,” Boston said. “Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this since last season. Everybody had a picture of me crying. Today, we’re national champions.”

South Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country all season and looked like it Sunday, dominating UConn in every way — on the glass, in the paint, at the free-throw line, you name it. The Gamecocks’ defense was relentless, smothering and suffocating. This was the 50th straight game in which Staley’s defense held an opponent under its scoring average; UConn had been averaging 74.5 points per game.

The Gamecocks had more than double (49) the number of rebounds that UConn did (24), which included 21 on the offensive glass. There were several times early in the night when South Carolina had the same number of rebounds as UConn had points.

“We dominated on the glass all season,” Boston said. “We knew it would come down to rebounding.”

Bueckers, who was energized to play in front of her hometown Minneapolis crowd, did everything she could for UConn. But it was never going to be enough without help. Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2021 class who averaged 12.5 PPG as a freshman, scored three points in 16 minutes while dealing with a stomach bug. Senior Christyn Williams scored two points. She was 1-for-7 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3. Bueckers was the only Husky who scored in double digits, and she led her team with six rebounds.

UConn’s biggest deficit of the game was 18 points. Bueckers hit a 3 to make it a 10-point game with 3:18 to go, but South Carolina quickly banked a few free throws that eventually put things out of reach. Speaking of free throws, South Carolina went 17-of-26 from the line, while UConn went 1-of-4.

When South Carolina won its first title in 2017, Staley cut up the net and sent a piece to every Black female basketball coach in the country. It was a tradition started by Carolyn Peck — the first Black woman to lead a team to a title when Purdue won in 1999 — who gave Staley a piece of her championship net in 2015. Staley said that she kept that net in her wallet until her team won in 2017. And she wanted every other Black coach to know that she sees them and wants them to achieve the same kind success.

Staley danced on the ladder with a pair of scissors as she cut down the nets again. What will she do with all that nylon this time? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that South Carolina winning this title is significant in the sport’s history.

UConn hasn’t won a title since 2016, Breanna Stewart’s senior year. While the Huskies are still a machine of a program, Auriemma is 68 years old. Staley is 51 and will be coaching for a long time. Could this be a changing of the guard? The slaying of a giant?

We don’t know that yet either. But we do know that South Carolina has cemented itself as a powerhouse and will be for years to come.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” will be published this spring marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

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Paige Bueckers Paige Bueckers
Aliyah Boston Aliyah Boston
Azzi Fudd Azzi Fudd

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