UConn women's basketball team falls short against No. 1 South Carolina Sunday at XL Center

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

HARTFORD — UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma was frustrated.

Frustrated at how his team kept getting beat up during a physical game.

Frustrated at South Carolina for dominating on the boards and easily getting second-chance points.

And overall frustrated that his team, while playing with just eight players, was so close to taking down its latest rival, yet just couldn't capitalize.

So, at 3:57 in the fourth quarter Sunday, he threw his arms up and slammed down his water bottle. He stomped onto the court and headed toward the official. He was immediately given a technical foul as assistant coach Jamelle Elliott held her former coach back.

Auriemma watched his No. 5 Huskies (21-3, 13-0 Big East) lead early against the Gamecocks and continually fight back in the second half to stay within reach of No. 1 South Carolina. Yet, they simply didn't have enough and lost 81-77 to South Carolina for the first time ever at home and in front of a capacity crowd at the XL Center in the arena’s first sellout since 2017.

"Those are the best games, you know, when you have a whole crowd cheering for us at home against big teams," Lou Lopez Sénéchal said. "Those are games that we strive for and they’re exciting games. So, it's always exciting to be out there. And obviously, you know, we want to get out of everything with a win, but we’ll see them again and we’ll get the win."

South Carolina’s victory is its third straight over UConn and fourth in the teams’ past five meetings. Gamecock coach Dawn Staley improved her program-record road-game win record to 121-46 across 15 seasons as South Carolina (23-0, 10-0 SEC) remains one of two unbeaten teams ranked inside the AP Top-25 Poll.

UConn’s loss is its third to a top-25 ranked opponent season and its first to the No. 1-ranked team at home in 10 years (then-No.3 UConn fell No. 1 Baylor, and then-senior Brittney Griner, Feb. 18, 2013, 76-70).

"I'm glad for them (her players) like it's completed when it comes to playing UConn, because they're the standard of college women's basketball," Staley said of beating UConn on the road. "When you're able to have this type of success that we've had, that (senior) class, it's always a great, incredible thing that you share with your family members and you certainly put on your resume because there are a lot of people that can’t do it."

The Huskies' toughest and biggest game of the regular season took form as a rematch of the 2022 national championship. The game was sold out three weeks prior. UConn students were lined up outside the XL Center by 4:30 in the morning in attempt to get good seats.

The XL Center was filled to capacity. As the Huskies played a tight game against the reigning champs in front of former Huskies: Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, Napheesa Collier, Morgan Tuck, Ashley Battle, Christyn Williams and Kelly Faris. Collier was at the game with her eight-month-old daughter Mila.

UConn 2023 signee Qadance Samuels was also in attendance along with Big East commissioner Val Ackerman and UConn football coach Jim Mora.

South Carolina carried a three-point lead into the fourth quarter as UConn faced the opening minutes with foul trouble, with Aaliyah Edwards (25 points, four rebounds) and Lopez Sénéchal (19 points, five rebounds) with four fouls each.

UConn started the quarter with a five-second violation on its inbound pass, but quickly shook off the fatigue and found another burst of energy.

It was 65-59 with just under four minutes left when Auriemma was called for the technical during a UConn possession.

Reigning National Player of the Year, Aliyah Boston (26 points, including 23 in the second half, 11 rebounds) sank both free throws and followed with a basket of her own to increase South Carolina's lead to 10. Boston later hit a 3-pointer with 2:57 left to make it 72-61 and cap a 9-0 run from the senior.

"Aliyah is just relentless. She plays relentlessly," Staley said. "… She impacted the game like they're scheming to defend her in a certain way, whether they bring the double, they bring the triple. … She’s got to see it all and she does a great job at reading it. And she doesn't get flustered."

South Carolina's 6-foot-7 junior Kamilla Cardoso (17 points, 11 rebounds) fouled out at 1:20 due to a technical. However, the Huskies only made two of their four foul shots.

Yet, the Huskies didn't back down. A basket by Edwards (25 points) with 46 seconds left pulled UConn back within five. Auriemma took his final timeout three seconds later as UConn began to foul South Carolina to slow down the game.

"I think we put points up on the board, but we just couldn't get stops when we needed them," Auriemma said. "It was encouraging that we could score that many points, given how many points we got on the bench."

But the plan sort of backfired. Nika Mühl (11 points, four assists) fouled out with 34 seconds left and Lopez Sénéchal followed 10 seconds later. South Carolina made its last six shots from the foul line (Gamecocks shot 72%, 26-36, from the charity stripe).

Aubrey Griffin (17 points) converted a three-point play off a fast break with 10 seconds left to make it 80-77, but Edwards' final shot attempt missed as the buzzer rang.

Unlike last April's game, UConn had just eight available players Sunday, including missing Paige Bueckers (ACL), Azzi Fudd (knee) and Caroline Ducharme (concussion).

But that didn't stop UConn from leading early.

The Huskies started faster and shot better than the Gamecocks. UConn's defense was all over South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, forcing her to either take bad shots or get called for three-second violations.

"I'm proud of everyone that we punch first, and we came out aggressive and strong and with a lot of energy and the crowd being at home really helped us with that," Edwards said.

South Carolina got into foul trouble as both Brea Hall and Brea Beal got called for two fouls in the first quarter. The Huskies ended the first 10 minutes with an 11-point lead while South Carolina made just five of 16 shots, including missing all three of their 3-point attempts, and had five turnovers.

Playing with nearly double the available bodies that UConn had, the Gamecocks (with 14 available players) began their plan to tire out the Huskies in the second quarter.

South Carolina held UConn to just 27.3% shooting in the second as the Huskies didn’t make a field goal until three minutes in. The Gamecocks cut UConn’s double-digit lead to five thanks to a 6-2 run and a 3.5 min scoring drought from the Huskies.

UConn then fell into foul trouble as Aaliyah Edwards sat for the half’s final three minutes after getting called for her third personal foul. Meanwhile, Cardoso came off the bench and scored 11 in the quarter alone.

At halftime, the game was tied at 34. South Carolina had played used nine players (UConn six) to outscore the Huskies 20-9 in the second quarter and outrebound the Huskies 24-13, including 15 offensive boards, at the intermission.

"Some of it is the fatigue factor. Some of it is for some unexplained inexplicable reason we just stopped moving," Auriemma said. "So I don't know what causes that. It happened a lot today. We just stopped moving  … It's just a lot of bad decision-making that we have to correct most of all."

The third quarter saw five ties and just one lead change. South Carolina went on a 6-0 run to open a 51-45 lead with just under two minutes left in the quarter

The Huskies, though, managed to climb back and it was 53-50 when the quarter ended. But Edwards was charged with her fourth foul with 1:15 left, sending the forward to the bench.

South Carolina had 37 points off the bench, while UConn's bench was scoreless. The Gamecocks also held a 42-30 rebounding edge, including 25-10 on offensive rebounds, to tie UConn for its second-worst rebounding performance of the season.

Besides the loss, though, Auriemma was proud of the way his team played against last year's champs and said he knew their effort on the court means more than just a loss in the regular season.

"It's not easy to do, to be calm in control of the game and don't let your emotions run crazy ..." he said. "So, I think when even we got down 12, there was a sense of calmness about us that we're gonna keep getting opportunities here and we just got to convert. This team has tremendous belief in themselves and even under the circumstances that they're in."

The Huskies next travel to Milwaukee to face Marquette on Wednesday at 8 p.m. (SNY).

Maggie.Vanoni@hearstmediact.com   @maggie_vanoni