South Carolina won the NCAA tournament on Sunday night, and they deserved it. Sorry for the lack of suspense, but the Gamecocks weren’t really interested in suspense, especially after losing in last year’s Final Four on a pair of missed layups as the clock expired. They’ve pretty much been the best team in the country for three seasons: They were 32-1 in 2020 and set to cruise to a title before COVID led to the NCAA tournament’s cancellation. Last year, they were a 1-seed but lost to eventual champions Stanford at the buzzer. This season, South Carolina absolutely dominated, maintaining the no. 1 ranking from opening tip in November until they cut down the nets in April. They had already beaten UConn by 16 points back in the fall; they trounced the Huskies again by 15 last night. It’s the second championship for the Gamecocks, who are on the verge of becoming a dynasty under head coach Dawn Staley.
Perhaps that sounds boring. Dominance often can be. We watch sports for the unknown, not to see the most likely scenario play out over and over again. But in their national championship win, South Carolina proved that even a team that crushes their opponent night after night can create unique moments that you need to witness.
Sunday night’s game featured the last two Naismith Women’s College Players of the Year, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston. Bueckers averaged 20 points per game last season and this year carried the Huskies to the national championship game with a 27-point performance in double overtime against North Carolina State; Boston is a 6-foot-5 dominant inside force who had 30 double-doubles this year in 37 games, putting up 23 points and 18 rebounds in the Final Four against Louisville. Yet on Sunday night, the two stars combined for just 25 points. South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson outscored them both, leading all players with 26 points. Henderson had played 129 games over four seasons for South Carolina, but in her final game, the senior registered a career high in scoring to win the national championship.
Henderson isn’t a scrub—she was a third-team All-American, and she’ll be picked in the WNBA draft next week. But she is South Carolina’s point guard, a pass-first playmaker who led the team in assists and steals this year. Boston topped the scoring for the Gamecocks in 25 out of 37 games this season, including four of the previous five games in the NCAA tournament. Henderson had led South Carolina in points only three times this year before Sunday night, and two of those were in the first two weeks of the season.
The Gamecocks are a defensive-minded team, leading the nation in blocks per game while holding their opponents to an awful 33.2 percent field goal percentage. They rarely win with big scoring outbursts—even Boston failed to score more than 29 points in any game this season. On ESPN’s Megacast, Diana Taurasi spent the entire weekend making wisecracks about “the length of the ’Cocks,” a rare and deft combination of legitimate basketball analysis and immature dick jokery.
"The length of the Cocks is long"— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) April 2, 2022
Diana Taurasi pic.twitter.com/5igEthPvU2
The ’Cocks’ length was on full display Sunday night. The Huskies averaged 73.8 points per game this season; they got only 49 in the title game. South Carolina led 22-8 after the first quarter, which represented UConn’s lowest scoring output in any of the 144 quarters they played this season. The Gamecocks finished the game with more offensive rebounds (21) than UConn had defensive rebounds (18), meaning they grabbed 53.8 percent of their own missed shots.
But for all that physical dominance, South Carolina still needed somebody to get the ball through the hoop. That was Henderson, the smallest player on the court at 5-foot-7. She fulfilled her usual duties on defense, helping defend Bueckers, and led the team in assists with four. But she was also the only Gamecock to hit a 3-pointer—she started the game 3-for-3 from deep—and had a series of beautiful finishes in transition for a team that usually scores by dominating in the halfcourt.
UConn put up a fight. On a few occasions, they made runs and looked like they’d get back into the ballgame—but every time, Henderson was there. In the second quarter, UConn made a 9-0 run to trim South Carolina’s lead to seven. Henderson broke the run with a layup. And in the third quarter, when it seemed like South Carolina might run away with things, UConn went on a 10-0 run to trim a 16-point lead to six. Henderson scored the next seven Gamecock points, including this beautiful transition finish that put her defender on the ground. UConn never threatened again:
South Carolina won 27 games by double-digits this season; Sunday night was yet another. But if you did watch, you saw a lot of things you’d never seen before: You saw UConn lose a national championship—before last night, the Huskies were 11-0 under Geno Auriemma in title games. Staley became the first Black coach to win two Division I basketball national championships, male or female. And you saw a team built on size and strength win because of their smallest player, a 5-foot-7 dynamo drilling 3s and making magic off the dribble. South Carolina was dominant, but they were dominant with style—and I’m not just talking about Henderson’s game, but also her clothing line, which she plugged in her postgame interview, and Dawn Staley’s Louis Vuitton letterman jacket, the coolest item of clothing ever worn by a coach during a national championship victory. Maybe you even watched all of Destanni Henderson’s 129 games as a Gamecock—but you’d never seen anything like the way she played Sunday night.