Hall of Fame Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma's practices are always grueling, but he put his players to task after their 73-57 loss to South Carolina last Nov. 22 in the Battle 4 Atlantis final in the Bahamas.
You can bet Auriemma's players will remember those practices in Sunday's NCAA title rematch between No. 1 South Carolina (34-2) and second-seeded UConn (30-5).
"They were the hardest that I've had," guard Christyn Williams said. "It was mentally taxing and very harsh. And they're always demanding."
BIG STORY LINE FOR UCONN
MORE THAN PAIGE: With 4:40 left in Friday's semifinal vs. Stanford, UConn star Paige Bueckers fell hard after colliding with an opponent and got up grimacing. Bueckers, who recovered from a knee injury this season, left the game walking gingerly. She returned, but the Huskies looked for others to make plays. Bueckers led the team with 14 points, but the last 14 points of the game were scored by her teammates in the 63-58 win.
BIG STORY LINE FOR SOUTH CAROLINA
BOSTON'S DOMINANCE: With a couple minutes left in Friday's win vs. Louisville, Aliyah Boston left the game only two rebounds shy of 20 rebounds in the Final Four. As if her performance wasn't dominant enough with 23 points. She had already reached that 20-point, 20-board mark in the Sweet 16. Establishing her early inside vs. the Cardinals opened up shots for teammates and Boston found them with all of her four assists in the first half.
Dawn Staley vs. Geno Auriemma: Auriemma leads the all-time series against South Carolina 9-2, but Staley has beaten UConn in two of the last three meetings, including in convincing fashion earlier this season. She pulled off the Gamecocks' first win in the series in 2019-20. Auriemma's 11 national titles is second to none in the women's game. Same could be said for Staley if she wins her second championship, first for a Black Division I coach.
Bench play in the NCAA tournament is usually cut to a minimum with coaches sticking with the core 6-7 player rotation they've used most of the season. But both UConn and South Carolina needed a spark from their reserves and got it Friday. The Huskies got 12 points from Evina Westbrook, including nine in the first half. The Gamecocks didn't get much scoring from Saniya Rivers, but she played 10 of her 20 minutes in the fourth quarter, replacing starting guard Zia Cooke.
Paige Bueckers vs. Brea Beal
Bueckers is averaging a team-best 15 points in the NCAA tournament, but Sunday she'll be facing arguably the best defender during UConn's run to the championship game. South Carolina's 6-1 guard Brea Beal shut down Louisville's Hailey Van Lith, who had just nine points Friday. Bueckers is four inches taller than the 5-7 Van Lith, who struggled to shoot over Beal all night.
SOUTH CAROLINA WILL WIN IF...
The Gamecocks can hold their opponent under their scoring average (UConn averages 74.8 points), which they've done for 46 straight games.
UCONN WILL WIN IF...
Paige Bueckers and the Huskies can take better care of the ball and not come close to the 19 turnovers they had Friday, which included five from Bueckers.
South Carolina 72, UConn 69