Saturday, December 2

UConn women’s basketball to face South Carolina in national championship game

MINNEAPOLIS — The week after the UConn women’s basketball team lost to South Carolina by 16 points in the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship, Husky coach Geno Auriemma put his players through their most grueling week of practice.

It was physically demanding. Mentally exhausting. Players found themselves in the hot tubs and cooling pools after workouts, desperately needing the rest and recovery.

“Those were definitely the hardest practices I’d ever had here … he kicked our (butt) that entire whole week,” Olivia Nelson-Ododa said. “You didn’t even have time to think about when you were practicing. You were on autopilot just grinding everything out with your teammates.”

While the Huskies’ rollercoaster of a year was just beginning — less than two weeks later Paige Bueckers went down with a knee injury in the final minute against Notre Dame — that week of practice in November set a tone for this year’s team.

The players needed to be tough. They needed to be good every night. They couldn’t rely on just one person to carry them through wins. It would take a complete team effort each game.

UConn (30-5) has carried that theme throughout the past five months. Players stepped up and contributed in new and different roles for the betterment of the team while others were sidelined with injury and/or illness. “Everybody Eats,” the Huskies’ custom spirit t-shirts say.

And now, 131 days after that loss in the Bahamas, the Huskies are facing them again — this time for a national championship (Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN). UConn has won all 11 of its previous trips to the NCAA Tournament title game and a win on Sunday would set the NCAA record (men or women) with 12 titles. South Carolina has also never lost an NCAA championship game, winning its only appearance in 2017.

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“I would venture to say that all 11 times that we’ve won — maybe there was one time — but I don’t think we surprised anybody by winning because we had the best team. We had the best team all year. We had the best talented players. We played harder than everybody. We were just better than everybody,” Auriemma said Saturday at Target Center, the site of UConn’s first championship in 1995.

“Can that happen again Monday night? I don’t think when we got on the plane to come out here, anybody in America thought we were the best team coming out here. So that’s probably not the case this year, but you don’t have to be the best team for a long time. You just have to be the best team for 40 minutes, or play the best for 40 minutes.”

South Carolina and UConn were the nation’s top ranked teams in the first preseason polls. While the Gamecocks stayed at No. 1 throughout the season, UConn fell as low as No. 11 before finishing the year at No. 5. UConn had eight of its 12 players sit out at least two games with injury and had two of its historic records broken: its 240-game win streak over unranked opponents was snapped at Georgia Tech and its 169-game win streak over conference opponents ended at home to Villanova.

“This team needed a lot of growing up to do. Obviously, I think they have or we wouldn’t be playing tomorrow night,” Auriemma said. “If we had stayed the same, if we were the same team mentally and physically that we were back then, I don’t think we would still be playing.”

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Sunday’s championship will feature both Bueckers, last year’s national player of the year, and Aliyah Boston, this year’s national player of the year.

Boston was dominant in the post all season. She had 27 straight double-doubles and became the fastest Gamecock to reach 1,000 career rebounds (92 games). The 6-foot-5 junior will be UConn’s biggest threat especially without its normal depth in the frontcourt.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that she might be the hardest person in America to guard,” Auriemma said. “She scores if there’s one, two, three, four people on her. It doesn’t matter. She’s able to carve out the space she wants. She gets the ball on the rim whenever she wants. She rebounds whichever ball she goes after. She just has a knack. … I think she’s the most important person in the country in terms of what she does for her team.”

UConn’s Dorka Juhász suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Monday’s Elite Eight and watched Friday’s Final Four on the sideline in a sling. Her absence leaves the burden of taking care of Boston up to Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards.

Nelson-Ododa, also 6-5, gave UConn its biggest lead on Friday 47-39 in the first two and a half minutes of the fourth quarter with a pair of free throws. The senior tip-toed around foul trouble, however; getting called for her fourth personal foul about three minutes later.

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