When Carolyn Peck interviewed South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley following her No. 1-ranked Gamecocks' decisive victory against No. 2 UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship, she revealed what's next for her team and what they need to improve.
"I think for the most part, what we want to do is physically challenging," she said after the buzzer. "We got to get better mentally. That's the separation from the good to great teams. So this was a mental challenge for us that we're going to utilize and take with us for the rest of the season."
Ironically, it was the mental toughness and focus of Staley's team that got it over the hump against the Connecticut Huskies. Staley's on-air assessment of what separates exceptional teams from adequate ones applied to the way UConn fell from being down 57-54 at the end of the third to then losing the game by 13 points. Connecticut, a talented team in its own right, got out-hustled by a team that has just as much talent as it does, if not more.
But maybe Staley was referring to the way her Gamecocks began the title game Monday. Though South Carolina jumped to a 6-0 lead in the opening three minutes, UConn made adjustments and found ways to score in transition and take advantage of the Gamecocks' early mistakes. The Huskies ended up scoring 13 points off 11 South Carolina turnovers in the first quarter.
Paige Buckers scored 13 points on 5-10 shooting in the first half and defensively, the big tandem of the Huskies' Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Dorka Juhasz found a way to make catches difficult for Aliyah Boston. They routinely double-teamed the country's best center, keeping her off her sweet spots.
But Boston adjusted in the second half, as great players do, and she let go of any hesitation she had previously.
"Coach was just emphasizing that I need to be dominant and just take over, and so that's what I was focusing on," Boston said after the game. "I just knew that there was going to be a double, but I needed to work quickly or just be patient and just read how they're playing it and maybe look for the kick out. But I mean, coach helped with that, making sure that I stayed locked in because she knew what I could do and I just needed to get there."
Boston's much more efficient second half (5-of-7 from the field after a 5-of-12 first half) was because UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards had no answer for Boston. She struggled guarding her one-on-one and wasn't as effective in preventing Boston's catches as both Nelson-Ododa and Juhasz were. UConn head coach Geno Aurriema expressed his frustration with her performance by his actions. Edwards, a starter, didn't start the second half and instead of being the first post player substituted in, sophomore Mir McLean, who rarely plays, entered the game.
The exact inverse of Boston's performance occurred for Bueckers. Her 5-of-10 first half shooting was followed by a 3-of-9 second. Staley noticed her team's defense fought harder over screens, helped and chased Bueckers around to make her work harder than she had to in the first half. Staley knew that wearing down Bueckers would take a toll on her, especially since it was her third game in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
But outside of the shooting and scoring performances of each team's best players in Bueckers (19 points on 8-of-19 shooting) and Boston (22 points on 10-of-19 shooting), there are three statistical metrics that highlighted a real discrepancy between No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 UConn.
First, the Huskies were creamed on the boards, with South Carolina grabbing 42 to UConn's 25. Almost half of the Gamecocks' rebounds were on the offensive glass, where they notched 19 to UConn's six. Boston had 15 total rebounds alone, which was just as many as UConn's starting five combined.
But while South Carolina is a bigger team with one of the strongest post players in the country in Boston and reigning ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year Camilla Cardoso, that's no excuse for UConn. Even though their posts are 6'5" (Nelson-Ododa and Juhasz) and 6'3" (Edwards) and might be less muscular than the Gamecocks' bigs, gang rebounding is especially a formidable tool for teams that are more reliant on their perimeter game, as the Huskies are.
Auriemma seems to believe that the lack of rebounding all around isn't terribly concerning. "Rebounding is always fixable," he said postgame. "That's always fixable."
Directly associated with rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding, is second-chance points, where South Carolina also dominated. The Gamecocks scored second-chance points (17) than Nelson-Ododa, Juhasz and Edwards combined (14). UConn could only manage two second-chance points.
And lastly, UConn turned the ball over 19 times against South Carolina, resulting in 21 points for the Gamecocks. While UConn appeared to be winning the points-off-turnovers battle in the first half, that number dramatically changed its course in the second half. South Carolina allowed zero points off turnovers and only gave it away three times in the second half after an 11-turnover first half.
Turnovers, rebounding and second-chance points all have a common thread. All three metrics are achieved with some physicality, but mostly on the merit of effort, mental focus and toughness.
When South Carolina extended its defense in the second half, it caught UConn sleeping. On two separate inbounds passes, Juhasz turned the ball over twice in a row in the third quarter, which led to two different scores from South Carolina's dynamic guard Zia Cooke. The Gamecocks' full-court press rattled the Huskies, and they weren't scrappy enough to keep up.
Even when the Huskies maintained a 52-50 lead with 2:37 left in the third, UConn guard Evina Westbrook's bad pass sent Cooke at full speed ahead in transition once again. South Carolina tied it up at 52 and the Huskies never got their momentum back.
When asked about the correlation between his team's mental focus and their turnovers, Auriemma replied that they are related.
"Mental focus, yes," he said. "Some [turnovers] were kind of mindless. Some of that obviously was responsible."
But then he deflected and spoke about the Gamecocks, who were able to deal with a punch in the first half and found a way with their talent and enough of a mental focus to maintain their status as the No. 1 team in the nation.
"Most of the time turnovers are caused by the other team," he said. "So yeah, half of that and half of the other team. We could be just as dumb against another team and we woudn't have turned it over. So I think South Carolina had a lot to do with that."