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UConn-South Carolina predictions and why the Huskies’ championship history might not matter

MINNEAPOLIS — The UConn Huskies and South Carolina Gamecocks play Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) to decide the 2022 Women’s College Basketball National Championship.

The two programs have met 11 times, with UConn leading the series 9-2. But South Carolina has won two of the last three meetings, including the only meeting between the two teams this season. Behind a 23-5 run in the game’s final 12:30, the Gamecocks beat the Huskies 73-57 in a 1-2 showdown at Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas on November 22.

Sunday marks the second time the Huskies and Gamecocks have met in the NCAA Tournament. UConn won their 2018 regional final 94-65.

Neither UConn coach Geno Auriemma nor South Carolina coach Dawn Staley lost in the championship game, although Auriemma had more experience. He is 11-0 all-time, while Staley is 1-0.

“We’re going to play this year,” Staley said. “We are not going to play their story.”

Here’s how Sunday’s season finale could play out.

How have both teams developed and improved since their November 22 match in the Bahamas? And what can this game tell us about how Sunday might play out?

Barnes: South Carolina’s core trio of Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke, showed up for the Gamecocks, and they’ll have to do it again in the championship game against UConn. The Huskies have a different starting lineup and are healthier than they were in the Bahamas. Azzi Fudd only played 10 minutes in the first game and suffered a foot injury which was not publicly known at the time.

Now she’s starting and has become a major contributor to UConn at both ends of the floor. I know I always say Fudd will be important, but I mean it. Her ability to shoot the ball forces defenses to watch out for her. And she became more aggressive after the dribble and showed talent as a facilitator, albeit fleetingly.

Adding Fudd to the Huskies’ starting lineup is one of the biggest changes from Game 1. But ultimately, the November meeting told us what we already know to be true: this game will be a battle of execution. If Henderson and Cooke play like they did the first time around, making good calls and hitting shots, South Carolina looks nearly unbeatable.

Voepel: I’m not sure the Gamecocks had to grow as much as they had to maintain a great level of play all season. They were No. 1 wire-to-wire due to their experience (starting two seniors and three juniors), relative health, and defense, which Staley called the best she had in South Carolina. The target has been on their backs all season, and even though they lost the SEC Finals to Kentucky, for the most part, the Gamecocks rose to the challenge.

As for UConn, Auriemma is used to her program being a machine that crushes opposition like a lawn mower on grass. He built it and trained his players that way for almost 40 years. So dealing with key player injuries, unusual missed shots, poor execution – things almost every coach faces at some point every season – convinced Auriemma that this team overcame miraculous odds to make it. in the championship game.

But let’s remember that Christyn Williams, Paige Bueckers and Fudd were all No. 1 recruits in their class. The Huskies have plenty of talent who got healthy — or fairly healthy — at the right time, and have one of the most successful coaches in all of college sports. Playing for a championship again is not unexpected for UConn, although the road here was bumpier than Auriemma would have preferred.

UConn’s injury-depleted frontcourt against Aliyah Boston. The basic battle. Which game makes the difference on Sunday?

Voepel: The guard game will probably decide this game. If Stanford’s starting guards had a slightly better performance in the semis, the Cardinal would be in the finals. Haley Jones had 20 points and 11 rebounds, but Lexie Hull, Lacie Hull and Anna Williams were a combined 3 of 17 from the field for eight points. The Cardinal had so many frustrating possessions in this loss. That’s what South Carolina needs to avoid, and it helps that the Gamecocks have a real playmaker with plenty of experience in Henderson.

UConn’s guards are the heart of its team, with several truly elite players. The Gamecocks have as good a perimeter defender in Brea Beal as there are in the country. Additionally, Saniya Rivers is a 6-1 freshman guard who looks a lot like Beal physically, but not with his experience and expertise. But it’s a good defensive weapon to have in reserve; she played 20 minutes against Louisville, recording 3 points, 4 assists and 2 steals.

Barnes: Boston is going to have its own regardless of how the UConn frontcourt plays. The consensus National Player of the Year had 23 points and 18 boards in the Gamecocks’ Final Four game with Louisville. Against UConn in the Bahamas in November, Boston had a similar performance, with 22 points and 15 rebounds.

Containing Boston is probably off the table, so the main game I’m watching is Victaria Saxton vs. Aaliyah Edwards. Saxton wasn’t a factor when they first met, and Edwards wasn’t at his best either. But both frontcourt players contribute key minutes for their teams, and they have the ability to do similar things on the offensive and transitional boards.

If Edwards (or Olivia Nelson-Ododa, for that matter) gets in trouble like she did against Stanford, Evina Westbrook stepping in to keep the South Carolina greats will likely be too much of a task (see what I have done there?). If that happens, don’t be surprised if UConn pull out a zone defense to try to cover up the lack of post depth.

Whether it’s playoff experience, program history or head coaches, do the intangibles tip the scales towards one team or the other?

Voepel: The biggest intangible in UConn’s favor is Auriemma’s track record in title games. It’s amazing to get there so many times. Winning all of them is mind-blowing. But UConn has often come into league games as heavy favorites. Some years – 2002, 2009, 2013 and 2016 come to mind – it seemed inconceivable that the Huskies could lose. This year, South Carolina has consistently been the better team, and the Gamecocks have the consensus National Player of the Year. Nevertheless, we must take into account that the UConn team currently playing is not the one that has lost unexpected games this season. It’s close to the team that UConn needed to have. So it should be a tight and tense contest.

Which team wins the 2022 NCAA title?

Debbie Antonelli: Caroline from the south
Katie Barnes: Caroline from the south
Charlie Cream: Caroline from the south
Alexa Philippou: UConn
Mechelle Voepel: Caroline from the south


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