March 20, 2023

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Women’s NCAA Final Four Recap: South Carolina Defeats UConn

Walking home from Target Center last night, as the rain turned into snow, I was almost embarrassed by how this false spring weather was gonna make my city look to all of these out of state basketball fans. The thing about the times in April when it does snow here, is that it isn’t a horrible tragedy to us or anything—it’s not even a surprise, certainly not in early April, at least. You usually know when it’s going to happen. You’re usually told by the experts, well ahead of its arrival, when it’s going to happen. But when it does arrive, even at the exact moment you were told it was going to arrive, April snow is a bummer nevertheless. Which is exactly how most everybody who wasn’t wearing South Carolina Gamecock red felt during that miserable blowout in the National Championship game at Target Center last night. South Carolina, who were favored by the experts, bludgeoned Paige Bueckers and the Connecticut Huskies 64-49—out-rebounding them 49-24—to become National Champs for the second time in the last five years. 

You just had to look at what the Gamecocks did against Louisville during their Friday night semifinal game, at what they’ve done to everybody they’ve played all season, to get an idea of what was going to happen in this one. In fact, you didn’t even have to watch them play, you could just watch them warm up, with broad shouldered giants like 6’5” NCAA player of the year Aliyah Boston, and Boston’s frontlinemates, the 6’2” Victaria Saxon, or the 6’7” Kamilla Cardoso, to get a reasonable idea of what was about to happen on Sunday night. And happen it did. South Carolina won the opening jump ball, Saxton got an offensive rebound off their first missed layup, and their star senior waterbug of a guard Destanni Henderson hit a three pointer, giving the Gamecocks a lead they would never relinquish. By the time Connecticut’s venerable head coach Geno Auriemma called his first timeout 4 minutes in, it was 11-2, but it felt like it was 30-2, and the discrepancy on the glass was more lopsided than the one on the scoreboard. There seemed to be multiple times in the opening few minutes when a South Carolina guard would drive the lane and toss the ball off the glass without even worrying if it hit the rim or not, seemingly so confident their big women down low would collect it and put it back in. South Carolina’s bigs were so completely dominating the lane that some of their missed layups would drop all the way to the floor before being corralled and put back in the hoop.

The reason this gray April slush of a basketball game stung more than it should have is because so many locals, and this was obvious from the increasingly despondent expressions on the faces of the thousands of young Minnesota girls in attendance, believed that their hometown basketball hero, former Hopkins star and now Connecticut star Paige Bueckers, would give the Huskies a chance. And they believed this because Bueckers and the Huskies had defied the odds in their last two games: after recently returning from a 19 game injury absence when she required surgery for something called a tibial plateau fracture and a torn meniscus that she suffered in a game against Notre Dame in early December, Paige “Buckets” finally started looking like herself in the late stages of March Madness. In the regional final, she carried the young Huskies to a double OT upset win over #1 seed North Carolina State, scoring 27 by going 8/9 from the midrange in the second half and OT. Then on Friday, against another #1 seed and defending champion Stanford, she was the best player on the floor as the 2nd ranked Huskies used their defense to sneak by a much longer team that had won 24 straight. But last night, South Carolina’s game plan was obviously to load up on Bueckers, helping off her teammates in waves of defense, and forcing her to pass. She didn’t even score her first points until two minutes into the second period. She did key a run at the end of the second, at one point making a whirling, behind-her-back, through-her-legs, crossover stepback into a 16-footer, and at another chasing a breakaway down full court and using her long arms to make an impressive block, but neither she nor her teammates could make that one big play to get them any closer than 7 points—they ultimately went into halftime down 8. Single digits, and like most of the people in the arena, I started talking myself into thinking that if the second half started out with a little UConn run, we might have a ballgame here. 

My optimism was aided by being surrounded by devout Paige Buckets believers. And not just the legions of Minnesota bandwagon jumpers. Both last night and on Friday, I found myself sitting in the Connecticut fan section. There were open seats here and there throughout the stands—attendance was actually a little soft the entire weekend, possibly due to some potential attendees still feeling a little anxious coming back from the pandemic, possibly because none of the schools that made the Final Four were from the Midwest. Both nights, I was able to move down from my media perch in the rafters to sit with the Huskies fans and parents. Paige Bueckers’ mom was sitting in the front row of our section, looking nervous both nights. With 11 national titles, the Connecticut Huskies are the New York Yankees of women’s college basketball, and usually I can’t stand rooting for them—because most years they’re the prohibitive favorites. I don’t hate the Huskies, however—in fact, I loved that the Lynx were lucky enough to be able to draft one of their biggest stars in Maya Moore in 2011 after Maya had led the Huskies to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Recently the Lynx have drafted two more back-to-back rookies of the year in former Huskies Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield. And the two biggest still active in the WNBA star Huskies, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, are among the most like-able in all of sports—my only regret about attending these games in the arena is that I was missing Bird and Taurasi doing their alternate broadcast on ESPN2, doing the thing the Manning brothers did on Monday night football this fall, casually calling the game and making bawdy Gamecocks puns alongside a revolving door of guest stars like Lebron James.

So yeah, the Huskies don’t feel like they’re the Evil Empire or anything—and they’ve actually been in a slump in recent years, at least by their standards. They haven’t won a championship since their streak of four straight ended in 2016. Last year they lost in the national semis, again, for the fourth time in a row, and this year, with all of their injuries, including a particularly gruesome one when star big Dorka Juhasz shattered her wrist in the regional final against NC State, they weren’t even expected to make it to Minneapolis. Against Stanford on Friday night, it felt great to engage in some light poseur-ing, sitting there with the Huskies parents and superfans, their squad cast in the unlikely underdog role for once, listening to their cheerleaders and their band do their rah-rah routines, howling in protest at all the bad calls against them, cheering Paige Buckets and her teammates through the nervous moments.

Huskies fans do the same thing Lynx fans do, the same thing Timberwolves fans just started doing this season, at the beginning of each game: they stand up en masse until the Huskies score their first basket, except they do it at the beginning of the second half too. And at the start of the second half against South Carolina, the Gamecocks would make us stand in stony silence for nearly half the third quarter, until my legs started getting uncomfortably heavy with each decisive South Carolina rebound of each Connecticut miss, until I started looking around and thinking, well, I’m not actually wearing any UConn gear, maybe I can just kind of casually slide my way back down to my seat. Those of us still standing didn’t get to sit until Bueckers made a jumper with 5:07 left in the third, at which point the lead had ballooned back to 16 again and it felt like time was not on the side of pack Canis Bueckersus. The Huskies finally sank their first two three point baskets of the game later in the period, getting it down to 6 points again, but by that time everybody in the building was beginning to understand that these little comebacks were as false as Minnesota’s spring. 

A word on the champs: with three minutes left, as the tween girls wearing Hopkins and UConn sweatshirts glumly began filing out behind their parents to beat the traffic, I thought about how all this Minnesota Paige Buckets homer love was obscuring an extremely love-able South Carolina team’s redemption story. The Gamecocks have the national player of the year in Aliyah Boston, a player whose missed layup in the title game last season cost her team a championship. Their sprightly senior guard Destanni Henderson was on fire all championship game long, reportedly even to alpha Husky Diana Taurasi’s delight—Taurasi was so delighted, in fact, that she started calling Henderson “Henny in the cup” during the ESPN2 telecast. And South Carolina’s head coach, Dawn Staley, a former Team USA point god and one of my favorite basketball players ever, is clearly one of the coolest people alive.

On both nights, the big scoreboard at Target Center ran these cutesy, slightly cringe video packages that were trying to comment on the generational differences between the players and the coaches on all the Final Four teams. One segment went through zoomer slang: “No Cap,” “Sus,” “Drip,” asking each player and coach to decode, another went through their ability to recognize artifacts from the ’90s: the band TLC, Beanie Babies, VCRs. The intent was to alternate between easy laughs for making the young players look clueless and the head coaches look old, but for anybody watching, the main takeaway had to be that at 51, Staley was cooler than any of the players or the coaches. She had real toughness and style in her delivery, and this obviously works for her: her players seemed inspired and prepared by her leadership in both their games this weekend. And based on her head-to-toe Balenciaga ‘fit on Friday and her Virgil Abloh Louis Vuitton varsity jacket last night, she knows exactly what drip means. 

In the end, as the seconds ticked down, as three quarters of the arena fell completely silent, as the Gamecocks fan section on the opposite side was the only corner in the place that persisted with any energy or volume, Staley and South Carolina got to celebrate their second national championship. As the confetti fell, the scoreboard was finally as lopsided as the stats sheet: final score 64-49, final rebounding stats an unholy 49-24. Destanni Henderson scored a career high 26, and national player of the year Aliyah Boston had 11 points to go with her 16 rebounds. Paige Bueckers ended up the only player on UConn to score in double figures. Soon it would be time to think about how this game would fit into the narrative of each team next year: would UConn be able to add the recruits that could come in and help Bueckers avenge this loss? Would Boston be able to get South Carolina back to their third consecutive title game and help get Staley, now the only Black college coach to win two national titles, a third? But before engaging in any long-term thinking, it was time for all of these out of town guests and media to battle their way through an Uber line to get back to their hotel rooms, as the hipper ones came to the grim realization that Prince wasn’t lying when he sang sometimes it snows…