With 2:55 remaining in the third Sunday night at Target Center in Minneapolis, South Carolina junior forward Laeticia Amihere saw teammate Victaria Saxton out of the corner of her eye near the sideline. She threw the ball in Saxton’s direction, but, problematically, Saxton was on the wrong side of the sideline, merely moving toward the scorer’s table to check in at the next whistle.
The Gamecocks’ opponent in the national championship game, UConn, had had some signature Paige Bueckers moments and the Gamecocks had made some other mistakes. As a result, UConn was in the game with or without that miscue. But the Huskies nearly used it to close the gap altogether.
UConn was already on a 2-0 run and it sparked eight more Husky points, starting with an Aaliyah Edwards layup. Freshman Caroline Ducharme followed with an impressive three while back-pedaling into the right corner and then Evina Westbrook, who was so hot in the semifinals, truly shifted momentum with a three of her own. All of a sudden it was a six-point game (43-37).
Enter Destanni Henderson. She wasn’t about to let the Gamecocks’ wire-to-wire reign at No. 1 end in heartbreak, scoring the final three points of the third to put South Carolina up nine. She then scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to finish with a career- and game-high 26 and lead the Gamecocks to a 64-49 national championship win that certified the career of star player and junior Aliyah Boston (11 points, 16 rebounds) as well as everyone else on the South Carolina roster.
For Gamecock head coach Dawn Staley it marked a second national title. WNBA superstar A’ja Wilson, who led the program to the first in 2017, was in attendance and thrilled at the outcome.
South Carolina won the battle on the boards 49-24.
Bueckers made an incredible mid-range shot off one leg to cut the Huskies’ deficit to seven with 1:05 remaining in the first half. It was a signature play for her and epitomized the feeling that not all hope was lost for UConn. Though it trailed by as much as 18 over the first two quarters, it was only down eight at the break.
South Carolina won rebounds 25-13 in the first half and forced five more turnovers than it committed. However, the Huskies found a way to shoot 54.2 percent from the field, while the Gamecocks’ 41 first-half shot attempts only yielded a percentage of 36.6.
Down 18 with 7:35 to go in the second, UConn went on a 13-2 run to cut it to 32-25. Bueckers scored seven points on the run to give her nine in the second. The stretch also featured a charge on Boston and two out-of-bounds turnovers on South Carolina.
Henderson made her first three threes, the last of which gave the Gamecocks their largest lead of the first half at 30-12. Her second three came on the possession after a Kamilla Cardoso steal and made it 25-8.
Zia Cooke capped an 8-0 Gamecock run with a 4-0 individual run that pushed her team’s lead to 13-2. Olivia Nelson-Ododa ended the run with an inside score and UConn would cut its deficit to nine again on a Westbrook layup in transition. However, it was hard to pick out too many bright spots for the Huskies in the opening frame, as they trailed 22-8 after it.
With five offensive rebounds in the first 2:57 and great transition basketball off defensive rebounds in that same span, South Carolina built a 9-2 lead. That included a Henderson three to open the scoring.
UConn freshman Azzi Fudd was under the weather Saturday night and only played five minutes in the first half (16 total).