While the rest of the country recovers from its post-Super Bowl hangover, the South Carolina women’s basketball team will attempt to do what only one team has accomplished in the last 35 months: beat Connecticut.
The UConn Huskies are in one of the most dominant stretches in college basketball history, winners of 59 straight and 106 of their last 107 games. The South Carolina Gamecocks are having an impressive season of their own, off to a 22-0 start for the second consecutive season. And Monday night’s game between the only undefeated teams in Division I basketball will be the 56th meeting between the AP’s No. 1 and No. 2 women’s college basketball teams. The last such meeting did not turn out so well for the Gamecocks, with No. 2 UConn beating No. 1 South Carolina, 87-62 in Storrs, last season to snap a 22-game win streak.
For any hope at a better result this season, the Gamecocks will need something special out of their dynamic duo on the interior, A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates.
Wilson is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year and top-ranked recruit for the Class of 2014,1 and she has elevated her game in her sophomore season, becoming South Carolina’s go-to player against ranked teams. The 6-foot-5-inch forward has accounted for 25.6 percent of South Carolina’s points and 26.3 percent of its rebounds against Top 25 opponents this season. Wilson had a tendency to disappear in big games last season, but she’s now averaging 26.6 points per 40 minutes against ranked teams and has a double-double in seven of her nine games against Top 25 opponents this season, more than she had all of last season.
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Coates, the 2013-14 SEC Freshman of the Year, leads the nation in field goal percentage and has an SEC-best 12 double-doubles this season. Coates and Wilson are averaging a combined 29.6 points per game, the most by any frontcourt duo in the SEC. Overall, South Carolina is averaging 40.3 points per game in the paint and has outscored its opponents down low in every game this season.
Based on their performance, the Wilson-Coates tandem could prove difficult for UConn to defend. Maryland’s Brionna Jones — one of the premier post players in the nation, with skills and stature similar to Wilson and Coates — put up 24 points against the Huskies earlier this season. UConn allowed a season-high 38 points in the paint to the Terrapins and trailed in the third quarter for the only time this season.
South Carolina is also aggressive on the offensive glass, averaging 8.6 points per game on put-backs2 and grabbing 13.7 offensive rebounds per game. Connecticut is allowing 10.7 offensive rebounds per game but the Huskies’ opposition has failed to capitalize, managing just 3.5 points per game on put-backs.
And don’t discount South Carolina’s home-court advantage. The Gamecocks have won 45 consecutive home games, the longest active streak in Division I, and are on track to lead the nation in attendance for the second consecutive season. Notably, South Carolina averages 80.2 points at home, compared to 68.4 points on the road.
But will a strong post presence and a favorable crowd be enough to hand Connecticut its first loss in over a year? Probably not. UConn is on pace to lead the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency for the fourth consecutive season; to have a chance against Connecticut you need to score at least 70 points. Over the last five seasons, UConn is 5-7 when opponents score 70 or more points, compared to 163-3 when holding its opponent to 69 points or fewer.
And here’s the bad news for Gamecocks fans: South Carolina is tied for eighth in the nation in offensive efficiency but has been held below 70 points on seven occasions this season, four times against ranked teams.
The Gamecocks also struggle on 3-pointers and free throws, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to run up a big number on the Huskies. South Carolina is shooting 31.4 percent from deep this season, which ranks 150th in Division I. In one of Connecticut’s most tightly contested games this season, Notre Dame shot 65 percent from beyond the arc, making 13 3-pointers. DePaul and South Florida also had early success against Connecticut, making 12 or more 3-pointers and shooting 45 percent or better from beyond the arc.
The view is even worse from the foul line, where South Carolina ranks 272nd in the nation with a 65.3 percent free throw percentage. Facing a Connecticut squad that holds opponents to a Division I-low 6.2 free throw attempts per game, the Gamecocks need to convert on any opportunity to put points on the board.
Is South Carolina capable of upsetting Connecticut on Monday night? It’s possible, sure. But SC will need either something truly absurd out of Wilson and Coates or a momentary reprieve from its season-long trend of their range extending no farther than the length of their arms.