Women's Championship Game • Perspective
Dawn of an era: Staley and South Carolina now set the standard
Women's National Championship • Perspective
Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Carolina defeats U-Conn. to win NCAA women’s basketball title

South Carolina players celebrate after winning the national championship. (Eric Gay/AP)
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MINNEAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston caught the ball at the top of the key and instantly took her defender to the hole with a quick dribble-drive — her purple and pink braids whipping through the air as her neon pink and green shoes blurred on the floor. She stopped on a dime as she reached the restricted area, reversed field with a drop-step and connected on a push-shot in front of the Connecticut bench. She then sprinted back and forced a turnover to end the first quarter.

This was the 6-foot-5 South Carolina forward, on the biggest stage in college basketball, showing the world why she was named national player of the year and defensive player of the year.

The national championship is officially heading back to Columbia, S.C., for the second time in program history after a wire-to-wire 64-49 victory — to end a wire-to-wire No. 1 season — in front of a sellout crowd at Target Center on Sunday night. Both titles — the first came in 2017 — were led by Coach Dawn Staley, who strolled the sideline in a green-and-white Louis Vuitton jacket, black pants and black Louis Vuitton shoes. South Carolina fans danced throughout the night, including former WNBA No. 1 pick A’ja Wilson, who has a statue outside of the Gamecocks’ home arena.

“It’s phenomenal,” Wilson said at center court. “Seats were empty in Colonial Life Arena. You could literally talk to the person in the section across. Now being a powerhouse in the SEC, bringing two national championships to South Carolina, it’s truly special.

“The things that she’s done … it’s so much bigger than basketball. I’m just glad that I can celebrate this moment with them because they deserve it. She deserved it more than anything, being a Black woman in this industry of college basketball. I love her to death.”

Dawn Staley was a great player. She might be an even better coach.

The Gamecocks (35-2) stormed the court as the final buzzer sounded with confetti falling. Guard Zia Cooke jumped on the scorer’s table and shouted to the South Carolina fans behind the bench. Staley danced with the championship trophy in front of a score of cameras as music blared.

While Boston is always the centerpiece on both ends of the floor, the night belonged to South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson, who posted a career-high 26 points and four assists. Henderson opened the game with a three-pointer from the right corner and pulled out the bow-and-arrow hand gesture.

Little did anyone know at the time that those thin braids bouncing on top of a white headband would be a nightmare for the Huskies throughout the night. Not only was her offensive game a serious problem, but her blanketing defense on 2021 national player of the year Paige Bueckers helped limit the sophomore to just 14 points on a night when U-Conn. (30-6) needed her to be spectacular. No other Huskies player scored in double figures. Henderson scored 10 points in the fourth quarter after the Huskies cut the lead to seven points.

“Since Day 1, we’ve been waiting for this moment,” Henderson said. “I feel like a lot of us believed in this moment. It definitely was written. It’s just something that we all prepared [for], and we knew we were going to come out here and play our best. And it paid off.

“It’s a blessing for us to be here dancing and having fun and living in this moment. It’s a great moment for us that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”

Staley added, “Our team had the fight of champions all season long.”

Boston finished her night with 11 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and two blocks and was named most outstanding player of the Final Four. Cooke added 11 points. South Carolina won the rebounding battle 49-24 and scored 22 second-chance points.

South Carolina sprinted out of the gate to build an 11-point lead before U-Conn. had scored its second basket. The Gamecocks played bigger and faster and swarmed on defense; the Huskies had more turnovers (three) than points and trailed 13-2.

The pro-U-Conn. crowd, thanks to hometown hero Bueckers, was drowned out by “Let’s go Gamecocks!” cheers just 3:30 into the game. Bueckers didn’t get a single clean look in the first quarter and didn’t score her first point until more than 11 minutes into the game.

U-Conn., chasing a 12th national championship and having never lost a title game, was bullied on the boards and locked down defensively. An unexpected rout seemed to be on, with South Carolina leading 30-12. But Bueckers started knocking down jumpers, and the Huskies closed the half on a 15-5 run to trail 35-27.

“Nobody in my position would be happy right now, so I’m obviously upset just with the way things ended,” Bueckers said. “Super proud of this team for how far we’ve come and all the adversity we’ve dealt with and all we’ve overcome to get to this point.

“But at U-Conn., it’s national championship or nothing, so obviously upset, frustrated, disappointed. Just wish things could have gone different for the seniors.”

South Carolina ascending to ‘dynasty’ status with talk of title repeat

U-Conn. was largely without standout freshman Azzi Fudd; the ESPN broadcast reported she missed shoot-around with an illness. She played just five minutes in the first half and finished the game with three points.

The second half was much of the same. South Carolina scored the first eight points and used an 11-2 fourth-quarter run to push the lead to 57-41.

“They deserved it 100 percent,” U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma said. “They were the best team all year. The first five minutes I thought they came out and set the tone right then and there for how the game was going to be played. We were pretty much even the rest of the time, gave ourselves a chance, cut it to five, but we just didn’t have enough.

“I’m proud of our guys just to get here, just to be in this situation; it’s just tonight we just didn’t have enough. They were just too good for us.”