By: Jeffrey Newholm
When top tier recruit Mel Thomas was looking for a school in the mid 2000’s, two of her final choices were Dawn Staley’s Temple team and Geno Auriemma’s Uconn team. In the end Uconn won because, as Thomas puts it in her memoir, “[Staley’s] team was not one of the best in the country”. Flash forward to 2014 and #1 recruit in the country A’ja Wilson would also be choosing between Geno’s and Staley’s team, with Staley now at South Carolina. By this point in time, South Carolina was a national power, and Wilson spurned the Huskies for the Gamecocks in a major recruiting coup for Staley. Yes, South Carolina has arrived as a national power in women’s basketball. Monday evening the #1 ranked Huskies, winners of 59 games in a row, will come to Colonial Life Arena in Columbia in the Gamecock’s first ever sold out game at the 18,000 seat venue. It’s the biggest home game in the history of USC, also undefeated and the #2 team in the country. The Super Bowl may be Sunday but die-hard women’s basketball fans may be looking forward to this game even more. As I usually do for big game previews, I’ll look at this game from every angle, then pick a winner.
Coaching: Geno Auriemma vs. Dawn Staley
In the ranking of nicest men in the world, Geno probably ranks down near the bottom, at least in terms of coaching. But as Leo Durocher said, “nice guys finish last”. Geno may be quick to criticize his players but they give him nothing but respect in return. His biographer notes that she has “never-ever-encountered a group of athletes who are as fiercely protective of their coach as this one”. I read an article where every time a Husky would say “Coach”, the editor would add (Auriemma). No, to his players he is not Coach Auriemma. He is simply Coach. And it takes a good one to keep this talented team focused against much weaker American Conference teams. Numerous times after a seemingly one sided first half he responds by saying “well that wasn’t very good” or even “that was the worst half in the history of the Huskies”. Geno expects perfection and continual improvement, regardless of opponent. Staley, at least on the surface, has a much sunnier disposition. The Gamecocks have tons of fun and games off the court. I’ve seen her players make a mockery of their own and the team’s Twitter account with embarrassing pictures of Staley and silly emojis. Yet when the game gets tight, as many USC games have this year, every time the team has gotten down to business and closed out the game with a win. For someone who’s all smiles on social media, I’ve been shocked by Staley’s focused and intense demeanor come game time. Despite her lifting her program from nothingness to unthinkable heights, she refuses to accept credit. After the biggest win in school history, last year’s Elite Eight win over Florida State, she assigned all the credit for her team’s success to God. I have to give the edge to Geno because no coach can match his list of accomplishments over the past 20 years. But a few decades from now I think everyone will easily be using these coach’s names in the same sentence.
Guard: USC’s Tiffany Mitchell, Khadijiah Sessions and Tina Roy vs. Uconn’s Moriah Jefferson and Kia Nurse
Jefferson will go down as one of the best point guards ever for the Huskies. She plays exceptional swarming defense and runs a quicker fast break than other player I have seen. Nurse put in a great off-season with team Canada but got off to a quiet start this year, even getting shut out Wednesday against Tulane. She responded with by far her best game of the year Saturday, going 8 of 11 for a team leading 20 points against East Carolina. The Gamecocks have been devastated by injuries at this position. Mitchell is an All-American and probably the clutchest player player in the country in endgame situations. Unfortunately she missed most of the Gamecock’s last game Thursday with a lower back bruise. She will start Monday, but might not be at 100%. Asia Dozier will have to sit this one out for the Gamecocks with a hand injury, and Roy will fill in for her. Roy leads the team in three point percentage but was just one of eight against Kentucky Thursday. The Gamecocks have a much better chance if she’s hot against Uconn, because nothing evens the playing field more than a slew of threes. Sessions has started every game for USC but is a minor contributor, averaging only 6.5 points a game. There’s a lot of unknowns for both teams going into this game here, but I’ll give to edge to Uconn because Jefferson, since the start of conference play, has given her team an extremely consistent boost.
Forward: USC’s A’Ja Wilson and Alaina Coates vs. Uconn’s Katie Lou Samuelson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck
Stewart is pretty much a lock for another national player of the year award. She leads the team in scoring at 19 points a game despite rarely playing the fourth quarter and is a monster presence on defense with her signature (often two-handed) blocks. 2015 top recruit Samuelson aimed to be a three point sharpshooter, but it wasn’t until she started to contribute to the team in other ways that she earned her starting job. She leads the team in treys but sometimes gets too trigger happy and shoots only 34% from downtown. Tuck is second in scoring for UConn at 16 PPG but recently took two weeks off playing and practicing to rest her aching knees. In her first two games she looked rusty and not nearly her usual self, not a good foreboding going into this one. Former #1 recruit Wilson already leads the team in scoring her sophomore year at 16 points a game and in my estimation it’s between her and Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner for the nation’s best sophomore. Coates’ 12 PPG may not seem like much, but her efficiency is shocking: 69% from the field! Unfortunately she can only hit 55% from the free throw line. If I could count on Tuck Uconn would have the edge here, but she’s too much of an uncertainty right now. Stewart and Wilson are both excellent, but the Junior Coates is a better all-around contributor right now than Samuelson, so I’ll give USC the edge at forward.
Women’s basketball fans have become habituated to big Husky games turning into big Husky routs, such as last year’s South Carolina-Uconn game, the 2014 matchup of unbeatens with Notre Dame, and this season’s opener in Ohio State. The Gamecock’s don’t have to win, but for the love of the game let it be close! Uconn has had three winning streaks of 40 games or more since the Maya Moore era and a grand total of two of those wins were by single digits. Thankfully I think the Gamecocks can at least hang tough, especially given the huge home crowd. Stewart and Wilson are both excellent top players. Mitchell and Tuck are both great players but are battling injuries. Samuelson and Roy are streaky three point shooters. I think all that’s a wash. In the end that leaves us with Coates and Sessions for USC and Jefferson and Nurse for Uconn. I think here the Huskies finally have an edge. Jefferson is playing at an All-American caliber right now and Nurse chose the perfect time Saturday to have her breakout performance. So in the end Uconn will extend the streak to 60. But it’s a single digit win for the first time in three years.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.