COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A’ja Wilson knew quickly in South Carolina’s first few possessions that the second-ranked Gamecocks had no margin for error when they had the ball against No. 1 UConn.
The Huskies took away the Gamecocks’ bread-and-butter, a simple entry pass to its tallest players in 6-foot-5 Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates. But the Huskies front line, led by Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck, was ready to deny South Carolina’s best chance at an upset down low in the top-ranked Huskies’ 66-54 win Monday night.
“They take away your first option,” said Wilson, who had 13 points, off her 16.7 point a game average coming in. “We tried to get it inside the paint, but they just denied it.”
And that meant trouble for the South Carolina (22-1), who struggled during stretches to score points. The Gamecocks made just 3 of 17 shots in the third quarter.
“A team like UConn, you can’t go possessions without scoring,” Wilson said.
Especially when Stewart, Tuck and Moriah Jefferson had few such issues.
Stewart led the way with 25 points, Tuck had 16 and Jefferson 12 as the Huskies won their 60th straight game - and improved to 19-3 alltime in No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchups.
“They pushed us out a lot father from scoring areas,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “It was just disruption. Any time you have that disruption, it makes passes really hard and everybody a step or two outside.”
Stewart led the way with 25 points, Tuck had 16 points and Jefferson 12 as the Huskies (23-0) won their 60th straight game and improved to 19-3 in No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchups.
“These games are a lot of fun,” said Stewart, who also had 10 rebounds and five blocks. “They are exciting for us.’
UConn Geno Auriemma felt the increased vibe as his team stepped out of its American Athletic Conference schedule. His players soaked in the anticipation of the season’s biggest game - the Gamecocks (22-1) came having opened with 22 straight wins - and played with a fire in front of a sold-out, 18,000-seat arena to prove themselves the best, the longtime coach said.
“The fun part is the look in their eyes,” he said.
UConn took control early, up 30-15 midway through the second quarter.
Stewart was the main reason why, finishing with her ninth double-double this season. The 6-foot-4 senior also played strong defense against South Carolina’s inside stars in Wilson and Coates. The Gamecocks duo, averaging 28 points combined this season, ended with just about half that (15) in their first loss of the season.
UConn handed the Gamecocks their first loss here since falling to Texas A&M 50-48 on Feb. 10, 2013.
Wilson and Sarah Imovbioh had 13 points apiece to lead South Carolina.
South Carolina lost its leading scorer in Wilson with 4:22 left in the second quarter as she injured her left leg. Wilson was jostling for a rebound she landed hard and was in obvious pain just off the court. Trainers worked on her lower leg before she was helped up and led to the locker room.
Wilson returned to the bench late in the third quarter, her lower leg heavily taped, and played the final period.
UConn: The Huskies are 51-10 against teams ranked in the top 10 since the start of the 2008-09 season. … Stewart has averaged 17 points and eight rebounds in her 19 games against opponents ranked in the top five.
South Carolina: Gamecocks Dawn Staley fell to 0-4 as a coach against UConn. She won both matchups against the Huskies as Virginia’s dynamic point guard a quarter century ago. … Alaina Coates came in averaging 17.3 points and 12.3 rebounds her past three game. She was held to one field goal for the game against UConn, although she did grab nine boards.
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Auriemma and Staley both confirmed the fledging series will continue for at least two more seasons. The Gamecocks will head to Connecticut in 2016-17 with the Huskies making a return to the Colonial Life Arena. Staley said continuing to play UConn is a good thing “as long as we can stay competitive.”
Auriemma said the team bus has trouble reaching the arena because of the all the fans waiting to fill the place for the game. Auriemma joked that one waiting spectator told him to take it easy and not be in such a hurry. “‘Hey, you’re here to see the game and we’re part of that, right?’” Auriemma said in response.
UConn plays at Temple on Sunday.
South Carolina plays Florida on Thursday night.
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