South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson (22) blocks a shot by Connecticut forward Katie Lou Samuelson (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -
The energy was high in Colonial Life Arena as fans packed the building ready to support the Gamecocks in their quest to upset the top-ranked Connecticut Huskies on their home floor.
However, a dismal second quarter for Dawn Staley’s squad opened the door for a lopsided 83-58 win for the Huskies.
"Our players thrive in this environment," Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said about playing in tough games on the road. "It's why they come to Connecticut. I don't think anyone can come into a game expecting...you're going to shoot 61 percent and hold them to eight (points). Nobody expects that, but that's what happens."
Wilson opened the contest determined to get the Gamecocks a win. The senior forward scored eight points in the opening quarter. However, her effort was matched by Kia Nurse, who also scored eight points in the quarter. While Nurse matched Wilson point for point, the Huskies finished the period with a 42.9 shooting percentage to take a 24-16 lead.
The second quarter saw the Huskies pull away. Geno Auriemma’s squad went on a 13-0 run that lasted nearly four minutes to take a 37-16 advantage. While the Gamecocks’ defense struggled to find answers, the offense sputtered as well scoring just three baskets in the quarter to end the quarter trailing 53-24 at the half.
"With UConn, it is those times which they can take control of the game where you're not getting back, you're turning the ball over, you're giving up second opportunities to score points, and then, you're coming up with too many empty possessions. And once you have those lapses, it's hard to overcome."
Bianca Jackson led the charge for the Gamecocks in the third quarter. The freshman guard finished the quarter with nine of her career-high 20 points to help Carolina outscore UConn 17-16 in the frame.
"I don't think I approached this game any different than the rest of the games," Jackson said. "When went into halftime, Coach Staley said, 'Be aggressive.' So, I was just trying to listen to what she said and take it in."
As Jackson thrived, Wilson failed to maintain the momentum she built in the first quarter. Wilson ended the night 4-of-18 shooting with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
"It was something that I've seen before," Wilson said when asked about what UConn did to limit her offensively. "It wasn't anything different. They kind of took away my space. They sent multiple people. Like I said, it wasn't something I've never seen. Right now, it's just the mental aspect of it. I felt the same way I felt against Missouri. I felt like I didn't play well. I didn't play well today and I apologized to my teammates for that."
"I thought A'ja shouldered all the pressure and that's hard," Staley added. "Of course, we lean on her a lot, but she doesn't feel it. I thought she felt it tonight. I thought she felt she had to have a tremendous performance in order for us to win and she did, but she didn't have to do it in every play that she was involved in and I think she felt it every play. But we've got to give her a little bit of help. I don't think we can beat a team like UConn if at least three or four of our players don't get to double digits and don't put the pressure on the ball that we need to not score as many points."
The Huskies would extend their lead to 34 in the quarter only to see the Gamecocks eventually shorten the deficit. In the end, Carolina’s short rally in the final quarter wouldn’t be enough to overcome the Huskies’ effort to remain unbeaten.
Despite the lopsided loss, the Gamecocks hope to take away some positives from Thursday's game as they prepare for their game against Mississippi State.
"The biggest thing is just turning the page and I think (the younger players) understand how to turn the page as well," Wilson said.
South Carolina will travel to Mississippi State on Monday for a rematch of last season’s national title game.
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