Top-ranked South Carolina in showdown with No. 2 UConn
STORRS, Conn. (AP) South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and UConn's Geno Auriemma are quick to point out that Monday's game between the top two programs in women's basketball won't decide the national championship.
But a win would validate the Gamecock's No. 1 ranking, and a loss would put the defending national champions back in the pole position, with no major challenges left for the Huskies before the postseason.
''It's exciting for it to finally be here,'' said South Carolina forward Aleighsa Welch. ''We all know it's been floating around all season. It's a big game for us, a big game for our season. We're excited to finally have a chance to go in there and play.''
The undefeated Gamecocks bring a program record 22-game winning to Connecticut. They have been ranked No. 1 since November, when UConn (22-1) suffered its only loss at Stanford.
The Huskies have been beating opponents by more than 42-points a game since that loss and 50 points a game in the American Athletic Conference.
Auriemma said now is a good point in the season to step out of conference and get another test, while there is still time to address any deficiencies that South Carolina might be able to expose.
''There may be things about (Monday) night that come so easy for us that we won't learn anything,'' Auriemma said. ''There may be things that come so hard that we haven't had to face all year long that we're going to look back and say, `Damn, we weren't ready for that.''
South Carolina has played five ranked teams this season. UConn is 5-1 against teams in the Top 25.
Their only common opponent is Duke, which lost by one point to South Carolina at home, and was routed 83-52 at UConn three weeks later.
That game was played in Hartford. This one will be on campus in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 fans. Staley said it's important her team doesn't get overwhelmed by that atmosphere.
''You can't come into a basketball game and play the nine national championship titles that are hanging from the rafters,'' she said. ''You can't come in thinking that, because you've already lost the game. I think you have to approach it like any other game.''
Both teams feature big frontcourts, quick play-making guards and deep benches. There will also be a matchup of two of the top players in women's basketball. South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell comes in averaging just under 14 points a game. UConn's Breanna Stewart puts up an average of just over 16.
Stewart, last year's national player of the year, has a little extra incentive to play well after being benched along with post players Morgan Tuck and Kiah Stokes after playing just five minutes in Saturday's game against Memphis. Auriemma said he didn't like the energy level the Huskies have been showing at the start of recent games.
''Obviously it's a motivating thing, whether he means to do it or not,'' Stewart said. ''If that means he's motivating us to have a chip on our shoulder tomorrow, all right. But I think South Carolina is a game that no matter what, you are going to be motivated for that and I guess the chip on your shoulder is just going to help.''
The UConn program has played in 19 games featuring the nation's top two ranked teams. It is 16-3 in those contests, 4-1 when the Huskies were ranked second.
This will be just the second 1-versus-2 matchup for South Carolina, and comes 33 years after its first, a 71-58 loss to Louisiana Tech.
''This game won't define us at all,'' Staley said. ''It's not the national championship game. It's another game against a tremendous quality opponent on their home court. It helps us continue to learn and grow in different environments like that.''
Associated Press Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina