April 8, 2022 | SPORTS | By Olivia Xerras | Illustration by Kira Schulist
A smile runs rampant across Aliyah Boston’s face as time expires in the 2022 Women’s National Championship game in the Minneapolis, Minnesota Target Center. This expression is a stark difference to the one she wore just one year ago, one that memes plastered across social media made fun of: her historic cry after missing a potential game-winning putback in the last second of regulation.
Getting to this expression, however, was no easy feat.
The first weekend of April produced two highly anticipated women’s basketball matchups. The first game on April 1 consisted of the No. 1 seeded University of Louisville matched against the No. 1 seeded University of South Carolina. Following that game, the No. 2 seeded University of Connecticut took on No. 1 seeded Stanford University. All of these teams are top programs, and all of them were coached to perfection, their rosters filled with All-Americans and player of the year nominees.
South Carolina played with poise and confidence. They easily got past Louisville and Haley Van Lith’s defense, scoring 72 points to Louisville’s 59. In comparison, the Stanford vs UConn matchup was far more of a hard-fought contest with fairly even matchups all over the floor. UConn’s Paige Bueckers (aka Paige Buckets) executed the game to her highest level; she was tough to stop and a pleasure to watch. Bueckers finished with 14 points and five assists, leading the Huskies to their 12th national championship game.
The UConn program entered Sunday night never having lost a title game in the finals. There are good and bad impacts of holding an 11-0 record going into the final. It does create confidence, but it also casts an ominous feeling of pressure.
The third evening of April saw a sold-out Target Center with the number of Gamecock fans inside surpassing the attendance of the Huskies. The physicality that encapsulated both teams became undeniable, but the advantage was on the side of South Carolina.
The massive stretch of injuries hindering UConn’s success this season seemed to be solved pre-game as the Huskies got much of their roster back in good health, with the only notable loss being center Dorka Juhász. The lack of her strong middle presence was apparent by the lopsided offensive rebound advantage, as South Carolina outrebounded UConn 25-13.
As both the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year, Aliyah Boston is the biggest problem in women’s basketball today and was an even bigger problem against the Huskies on Sunday night.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards of the Huskies had been tasked with the job of minimizing Boston’s points and leverage for her team. Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson of the Gamecocks were expected to majorly contribute in the three-point category, with Chrystin Williams and Evina Westbrook slated to do the same on UConn’s side. Williams and Westbrook fell short of this role, attempting only four 3-pointers combined for the game.
Following the initial tip-off, it was clear that it was not going to be the Huskies’ night. South Carolina could get what they wanted at any time: rebounds, put-backs, layups, and 3-pointers. UConn simply took what they could get.
UConn eventually brought it within five points late in the second quarter; they had started the game down 22-8. However, it became impossible to hold back South Carolina’s offense and their well-oiled defense. South Carolina’s 64-49 victory was made possible with Destanni Henderson’s game-high 26 points, which earned her the game MVP, as well as Boston’s 11 points and 16 rebounds along with two critical blocks.
The only question now is whether South Carolina will build the next UConn-esque dynasty. The idea is tough to deliberate, but Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s head coach, confirms that she just wants to be a “willing giver of this game” as she now sits with a 2-0 record in national title games.