No. 4 UConn pulls away to rout No. 11 South Carolina 97-79

Hartford — It was a situation the UConn women's basketball team has found itself in many times in the past, playing a substantial nonleague opponent in the middle of conference play.

And coach Geno Auriemma's description of Monday night's game against No. 11 South Carolina, a 97-79 victory before 11,740 fans at the XL Center, began the way his postgame diatribes usually begin in such circumstances.

"I don't think in the big scheme of things it matters," Auriemma said.

But then, he tends to have a different way of looking at things this season.

"I think because of the way the Baylor game (68-57 loss) played out, because of the way the Louisville game (78-69 loss) played out, it was kind of important we came out of this with something to make us feel good," Auriemma said.

"... We had to battle these guys. It's good we're going through these moments. The more we learn about it, the better we'll be come March."

No. 4 UConn is ranked lower in the Associated Press poll than it has been since 2007.

The Huskies (22-2) have lost multiple regular-season games for the first time since 2012-13.

But also, there was the third quarter Monday, when Auriemma agreed it might have been UConn's best 10 minutes of the season. The Huskies, much sharper since a 65-55 win at Cincinnati on Feb. 2, nearly compiled 100 or more points for the third straight game.

UConn led 44-43 at halftime but turned that into a 73-55 advantage by the end of three.

Napheesa Collier finished with 31 points, 16 rebounds and six assists for the Huskies and fellow senior Katie Lou Samuelson had 29 points. Freshman Christyn Williams had 19 and Crystal Dangerfield added 10.

"You play a good first half and then you need to play a second half that will equally match that and we didn't do that," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "We didn't hit shots. You've got to keep it close with them. You have to hold serve."

"Given the quality of the team we're playing against, yeah, that was pretty good," Auriemma said of the third. "That pretty much ended the game right there."

South Carolina, which graduated All-American A'ja Wilson — the first overall pick in the WNBA Draft — following last season, in which the Gamecocks fell against UConn in the Elite Eight in Albany, entered Monday's game having won 13 of their last 14 games.

South Carolina was averaging 43 points per game in the paint over the last four outings and it was Staley's plan to execute that again against the Huskies.

"You've got to drive on UConn. You've got to put them back on their heels," Staley said.

The first quarter certainly played out that way, as the Gamecocks led UConn 27-23, having made 75 percent of their shots (9-for-12) at the first television timeout.

The lead changed six times in the second quarter, with Collier's three-point play with 1:44 to play in the half giving UConn the lead for good.

The Huskies went on an 18-5 run to start the third quarter, getting a drive from Collier and a fast break layup by Samuelson to prompt a Staley timeout. Then, after the timeout, Collier — whom Staley would later call "relentless" — hit a jump shot from the top of the key and Olivia Nelson-Ododa dropped in a pair of free throws for a 62-48 lead.

Auriemma credited Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-4 freshman, for her defense in the third quarter, not allowing South Carolina to slice to the basket quite so easily.

And the coach continued to herald Collier, the 6-2 forward, who recently became just the fifth player in UConn history to achieve 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. Collier has scored 20-or-more points in eight straight games and 30-or-more three times during that span.

"Every coach talks about their players," Auriemma said. "There can't be anywhere a player that's playing better or doing more for their team than Napheesa Collier does. There's something about her that's rare. You just don't see it."

Bianca Cuevas-Moore finished with 25 points for South Carolina (17-6) and Te'a Cooper had 20.

That was UConn's last remaining nonleague game. The Huskies will next play at 2 p.m. Sunday at UCF in Orlando, Florida.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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