Tonight South Carolina's women's basketball team takes its number-one ranking to Storrs, CT to take on the second-ranked UConn Huskies. This is the most anticipated game of the season thus far, and "most anticipated game of the season" is territory that the Gamecocks haven't been acquainted with until now. However, Dawn Staley has built a formerly moribund Carolina program into a perennial contender. Her team is currently considered the best in the nation, the program worthy of calling itself a peer of the premier UConn program. That's what Staley has accomplished in Columbia, and now she has a chance to lead her team to victory in the biggest showcase matchup her program has ever seen.
A win won't come easy. After losing at Stanford early in the season and allowing South Carolina to take the top spot in the rankings, UConn has been unstoppable, winning most of its games by over 40 and even 50 points. The Huskies have a formidable home-court advantage, too. UConn has won 29 straight at home, the longest active streak in the nation. They will be shooting for their 300th win at Gampel Pavilion. Their all-time record at the venue is an astonishing 299-18.
While UConn has home-court advantage, these two teams are fairly evenly matched on paper. If Carolina has an advantage, it's probably its depth. The Gamecocks go very deep into the bench every game and routinely see the backups outscore the starters. That would seem to suggest that USC would benefit more from a tightly called game than UConn, but the Huskies excel much more from the charity stripe than Carolina. UConn is shooting a .718 FT% to Carolina's .661.
UConn also shoots better from outside than Carolina. Although the recent emergence of Bianca Cuevas for Carolina has made the Gamecocks more dangerous in this respect, you have to respect how the Huskies are shooting .410 from downtown. Huskies guard Maleena Mosqueda-Lewis shoots an astounding .504 from beyond the arc. Mosqueda-Lewis and her compatriots will really test Carolina's perimeter defense. If Carolina gets too greedy, though, UConn will utilize a tough inside-outside punch. UConn forward Breanna Stewart is the reigning Player of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and she's averaging over 16 per game on .521 from the field.
If these numbers scare you, don't forget that UConn doesn't get challenged much in the American Athletic Conference. Carolina's athleticism and defensive physicality is going to be a few steps up from what UConn is used to.
Still, this will be a tough game to win for Carolina. A loss doesn't mean the end of Carolina's national title hopes. Barring a collapse that results in lower-than-expected tournament seeding, Carolina won't have to play at UConn if the two teams face off again in the post-season. Still, a win would be huge for a team that wants to prove that it truly belongs with the sport's elite.