It’s rare that women’s college basketball steals the national spotlight away from the NBA and men’s college hoops during the regular season, but that is exactly what will happen this evening, starting at 8:00pm when the two best teams in the country, the South Carolina Gamecocks and the two-time defending National Champion UCONN Huskies tip-off at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Connecticut.
The game will be televised on ESPN2.
If athletic excellence and future intrigue appeals to you, this much-anticipated matchup far outshines anything that the other can’t-miss game of the evening, #11 Iowa State vs. #21 Oklahoma on the men’s side of the ledger, brings to the table.
If you follow sports from a historical perspective, you’re aware that none of the great dynasties last forever. The UCLA men once ruled over college basketball from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s in the same way that the UCONN women now dominate the sport. But today, the Bruins are scraping and clawing to merely re-emerge as a consistently good team in their own conference, let alone on the national landscape.
The Lady Huskies, led by head coach Geno Auriemma, are the modern day gold standard of hoops superiority. They walk into the game with a record of 22-1 and have won an astonishing 68 of their previous 69 games. If they can win the NCAA Tournament again this year, Auriemma will match the absurd standard that John Wooden set when he won a record 10 national titles at UCLA. The Connecticut program alone has won more women’s championships than all of Big 12, Big Ten and ACC schools combined.
The Huskies have the longest active home-winning streak in the nation, having won 29 straight within the intimidating confines of Gampel Pavilion. Since their lone loss to Stanford in November, they’ve looked indestructible, thrashing teams by an obese average of 42 points per game.
South Carolina walks into tonight’s game sporting an undefeated run, 22-0, through the regular season thus far. Like UCONN, they are ranked among the country’s top teams in both offensive and defensive efficiency. While the player matchups will be captivating, the coaching comparison will be just as intriguing.
Auriemma is one of the best and most decorated coaches in the history of sport. He’s reached 900 victories faster than any coach ever, and has delivered nine national titles while posting a mind-boggling five undefeated seasons. He represents the present, recent past and the short-term future of the best of women’s hoops.
His counterpart on the Gamecocks’ sideline, Dawn Staley, according to many, represents the long-term future. Last year, she was the SEC Coach of the Year after leading South Carolina to their first-ever regular season conference title. They’ve been to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and have begun to separate themselves as a potential national power for years to come.
This year, she’s led the Gamecocks to another first, their lone #1 Associated Press Poll ranking in program history. Staley revived the program at Temple University in her native Philadelphia, where in six years, she led the Owls to six NCAA Tournaments, four conference tournament championships and and three regular season conference titles before taking over at South Carolina seven years ago.
Despite Auriemma’s glimmering accomplishments and the long shadow that he casts, Staley done some things that UCONN’s Hall of Fame coach hasn’t.
Not only is she coaching the top-ranked team in the country, but she also quarterbacked one during her stellar playing career at the University of Virginia. At UVA in the early ‘90s, Staley cemented her legend as one of the greatest guards and leaders to ever play the game while leading the Cavaliers to three Final Four appearances.
She is also the only player in the history of women’s college hoops to win the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player Award despite her team losing in the championship. Staley won three Olympic Gold Medals, is universally recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame as a player in 2013.
Ask anyone who some of the greatest players to ever rise off the Philadelphia asphalt are, and if they fail to mention Dawn Staley along with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Earl Monroe, Lionel Simmons, Pooh Richardson and Hank Gathers, feel free to inform them, after shooting them in the pinky toe, that they’ve been criminally misguided and under-educated.
Auriemma will not be at UCONN forever. In the same way the he supplanted the University of Tennessee’s legendary Pat Summitt as the face of women’s basketball, there are many that believe Staley, and the program she is building at South Carolina, will succeed him once he retires.
On the court, pay attention to which team is able to establish the game’s defining tempo. UCONN prefers to run like Forrest Gump, all day every day, and they lead all of Division-I with a scoring average of close to 90 points per game. South Carolina plays a suffocating, aggressive and belligerent style of defense and no opponent has scored more than 50 points against them this year.
As for the individual players, we should be in for a special treat. Here’s a quick breakdown of two of the key players to watch –
BREANNA STEWART, UCONN JUNIOR FORWARD – Breanna is the best player in the college game right now, men included, a two-time Final Four Most Outstanding player and the reigning consensus college national player of the year. A veritable female version of Kevin Durant, she’s 6-foot-4, can handle like a guard and can play practically every position on the floor. She can post up, shoot off the dribble, can bang from deep and is more versatile than Christian Bale playing Dicky Ecklund one minute and Bruce Wayne the next. The scary thing is that she’s only a junior and will be back on campus next year.
A’JA WILSON, SOUTH CAROLINA FRESHMAN FORWARD – While junior Tiffany Mitchell is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and the team’s leading scorer and 3-point shooter, Wilson is the team’s second-leading scorer despite coming in off the bench. She was the top high school recruit in the country, and chose South Carolina over UCONN and other traditional powers. A 6-foot-5 lefty, she can operate on the block and on the perimeter, while also being functional while leading a fast break. She attacks a defense in many ways, can change a game with her rebounding and is very smooth with an advanced mastery of balance and footwork.
Tonight, I suggest that you leave the fellas alone for a few hours and check out this game, where the past and present will be colliding with the future, and where the very best in college basketball excellence will be on display.