Women's college basketball winners and losers: South Carolina in line for repeat; LSU, Ohio State struggle
HARTFORD, Conn. — Anyone in the know would have called No. 1 South Carolina the favorite heading into a national championship game rematch with No. 5 UConn on Sunday afternoon. Most did.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley didn’t, creating an odd juxtaposition of the favorites using an underdog mentality as the actual ones in the Huskies refused. And in reality, Staley wasn’t wrong. Prior to Sunday, the Gamecocks had never defeated the powerhouse Huskies on their home court. Doing so this time wouldn’t be easy, even given their undefeated record, sparkling trophy and dozens of UConn players dressed in sweats on their bench.
The Gamecocks were met in Connecticut by sub-zero temperatures, lines of fans waiting on sidewalks two hours before a noon ET tip and later a roaring fire of white-clad Husky faithful in a sold-out XL Center. It was the first sellout since Dec. 3, 2017, and included WNBA stars Sue Bird and Napheesa Collier in the stands.
With the raucous environment behind them and a gritty 81-77 win in hand, Staley was asked how she would characterize the milestone.
“In the whole grand scheme of things, it’s really not important,” Staley said. “But for your psyche [it is]. When we’ve beat UConn in the regular season, great things happen in the postseason. This was our only opportunity for us to play and you’ve got to have some success. You’ve got to feel some success or else, you play them again [having] lost that game, it does give you a little bit of doubt that you can beat them. It was good for our players.”
The two first met in 2007 in Storrs and UConn, then ranked No. 2, laughed South Carolina out of town with a 97-39 drubbing. They won the next seven in increasingly closer fashion and all but one with the Gamecocks ranked. South Carolina's first win was as the No. 1-ranked team in February 2020, taking it 70-52 over No. 5 UConn. They were overwhelming favorites that season to win their second title when the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
SC's next win came in November 2021 at the Paradise Jam tournament, 73-57, and it went on to win its second championship with the 64-49 win against the Huskies in the title game in April.
“It’s completed when it comes to playing UConn and that’s because they're the standard. They’re the standard of college women’s basketball,” Staley said.
South Carolina is no Goliath, not in a time of increased parity fueled by talented players, experienced coaches and investment nationwide. The tight contest showed more than any other that the Gamecocks aren’t unbeatable. A few more 3-pointers here or there for UConn, or one of the injured Huskies back in a game jersey, could have swung the result.
The Gamecocks had big games from bench players Raven Johnson and Kamilla Cardoso, a nod to the depth no other team boasts and arguably the reason they’re in line for a title. Not many teams can right now can upset them — underscored by then-No. 2 Stanford falling hours later to Washington — but that’s the madness of March. It’s not out of the realm of possibility South Carolina could fall.
What it did show is South Carolina remains a runaway favorite for a repeat title that could cement its status, written even bolder on Sunday, that the Gamecocks are the modern powerhouse in women’s college basketball. Given the state of the game’s competition, Staley matching UConn's 11 trophies likely isn’t in the cards (she said so herself). But back-to-back championships aren’t common, either. UConn, Tennessee and USC are the only other programs to do it in the 40 times the NCAA has crowned a champion since 1982. The last team to repeat was none other than the Huskies, who swept all four titles during the Breanna Stewart era that ended in 2016.
The most looming threat to their undefeated record is LSU on Sunday and Tennessee on Feb. 23. They’ll also have to be on guard for the SEC tournament, where the Gamecocks were upset in the title game last season before tearing through the NCAA tournament. But it would take a lot to knock South Carolina out of a No. 1 tournament seed line and the clear path to the Final Four.
If they’re the No. 1 overall seed, which is highly likely, the regional final will be in their backyard of Greenville, South Carolina. If that advantage sounds familiar, that’s because it is. UConn has played most regional finals essentially at home, including last year’s nail-biting overtime thriller against NC State that drew ire from Wolfpack fans.
That’s the beauty of sitting at the top and being “the standard,” as South Carolina now knows.
Loser: LSU beginning to struggle
On the optimistic side, winning is all that matters in the end. Less optimistic is that LSU isn’t doing that winning well, struggling against unranked teams and those with far superior talent to the nonconference schedule it faced in November and December.
The Tigers battled against Tennessee to win, 76-68, at home and Angel Reese was clearly frustrated by the defense she was attempting to break. It was a stark contrast to UConn, ranked lower than the Tigers, trouncing the Lady Vols five days earlier on the road.
The Tigers then had to use overtime to defeat Georgia, 82-77, in a truly ugly fourth quarter and overtime period. It somehow became worse on Sunday when they slid by Texas A&M, the team with one SEC win in 11 tries, in what was a 4-point game with less than two minutes to play. LSU won, 72-66, behind Reese’s 26 points and 22 rebounds.
Head coach Kim Mulkey has explained the noncon situation, but it doesn’t erase the fact that not playing top competition doesn’t prepare a team for top competition. Nor does avoiding different types of elite offenses prepare one for them when it matters. Auriemma explained that on Sunday, after his team’s eighth game against a top-25 team.
“If you don’t put yourself in a situation to play these guys, you’re always pretending that you’re ready. You’re not ready,” he said.
LSU (23-0, 11-0 SEC) will head to Columbia for its clash with South Carolina (23-0, 10-0) on Sunday. They are the two remaining undefeated teams in the nation and each boasts a national Player of the Year contender in Aliyah Boston and Reese.
Winner: The Law Firm of Clark and Czinano
Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano are putting in the work for Iowa, combining for 107 of the team’s 191 points over two games this past week.
The first was the most impressive as they put up 70 points in a 96-82 win over ranked Maryland. It was 73% of the Hawkeyes' offense. While the catch with Iowa is more players need to step up, when it’s working like it was against the Terps, it’s a moot point.
Clark scored 42 points with seven rebounds and eight assists in the win. She is the only Division I player to score 40 against a ranked opponent this season, per ESPN Stats and Information, and she’s done it twice. Czinano chipped in 28 going 14-of-18 from the field with six rebounds.
Clark followed it up with another commonplace triple-double, the ninth of her career, in a 95-51 win over Penn State on Sunday. It tied the mark for second in women’s basketball history set by Lamar’s Chastadie Barrs from 2015-19. Clark scored 23 points with 10 rebounds and 14 assists.
Czinano added 14 points, going 7-of-10 with four rebounds and an assist in 22 minutes. She’s hit 70% or more of her shots in seven of the last eight games.
Iowa (19-4, 11-1 Big Ten) has now knocked out wins against Maryland (19-5, 10-3), Ohio State (20-4, 9-4) and Michigan (19-5, 9-4) on its Big Ten schedule. They’re the Nos. 3-5 teams in the league standings. The Hawkeyes have only tripped up against Illinois (18-6, 8-5) and have their chance at Indiana (22-1, 12-1) on Thursday.
Loser: You OK, Ohio State?
It was looking up when Ohio State announced an hour before tipoff that point guard Jacy Sheldon was available for its top-10 tilt with Big Ten foe Maryland. The senior averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists and 1.9 steals last season en route to Associated Press All-American honorable mention, All-Big Ten first team and All-Big Ten defensive team last season. She injured her leg early and hadn’t played since Nov. 30.
That optimism quickly deteriorated as the Terps built up a 19-7 first-quarter lead and crushed the Buckeyes in the third and fourth to win, 90-54. The 36-point winning margin was the largest against a top-10 team in Maryland program history. The previous mark was a 27-point win against Penn State, then ranked No. 7, in 1991.
“They played a great game, and we were really bad,” Ohio State Coach Kevin McGuff said, via the Washington Post. “That was to their credit. They coached better, played better — just everything was better about them today.”
The Buckeyes (20-4, 9-4 Big Ten) are floundering after an undefeated start to the schedule. They’ve lost four of the last five with the only win against Wisconsin (7-17, 2-10).
Freshman forward Cotie McMahon sat for much of the first half in foul trouble and finished with 6 points. The team committed 24 turnovers and was destroyed in paint points, 48-28. Diamond Miller scored 29 for Maryland and Abby Meyers got hot from 3 for 22 points.
There’s brief relief for Ohio State to bring Sheldon back into the fold and find its footing. The Buckeyes host Minnesota on Wednesday, but turn around to host Big Ten leader Indiana on Monday. They lost by 13 to the top-ranked Hoosiers two weeks ago.
Winner: Pac-12, we see you
Fans were looking on the wrong side of the country for a Husky upset. Rather than UConn toppling the top team in the country, the Washington Huskies downed the No. 2 team Stanford, 72-67.
Elle Ladine scored 21 points to lead Washington (13-8, 5-7 Pac-12) and Dalayah Daniels hit two free throws with eight seconds left. It was the program’s first win over the Cardinal (22-3, 10-2) since 2016, a skid extending 11 games.
Stanford is now tied for first place with Utah (you know, the team picked to finish fifth) in the league standings. Colorado (hello, eighth-place pick) is third at 18-5 overall and 9-3 in league play.
Arizona (18-5, 8-4) saved itself from an upset by outlasting USC, 81-75, in two overtimes. Cate Reese scored a career-high 33 points and hit the clinching free throws in the final 10 seconds. Destiny Littleton led USC (17-6, 7-5) with 21 points, playing a full 50 minutes.
Arizona will return home to host Stanford (22-3, 10-2) on Friday.
Winner: Watch out for Baylor
The Bears dropped out of the AP poll last month for the first time in 16 years, but are far from out of contention for a NCAA tournament run. The Bears served ranked Iowa State its first home loss of the season, 76-70, on Saturday behind 21 points from Sarah Andrews. Four Bears were in double digits and Darianna Littlepage-Buggs secured her fifth double-double in six games with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
It was the fourth top-25 win by Baylor (16-6, 7-3 Big 12) this season. Three of those four were on the road in the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State). They’re a league-best 4-1 in conference road games.
The Bears meet Oklahoma again on Tuesday, this time at home in Waco, Texas. Texas leads the standings at 9-2 in Big 12 play, while Oklahoma and Baylor each have three losses and Iowa State has four.
Must-watch games this week
Iowa (19-4, 11-1 Big Ten) at Indiana (22-1, 12-1), 6:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network — It’s a battle for the top spot in the league standings and Caitlin Clark is always on triple-double alert.
Stanford (22-3, 10-2 Pac-12) at Arizona (18-5, 8-4), 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — Stanford will need to rebound after its loss and Arizona, fourth in the standings, can climb up the Pac-12.
LSU (23-0, 11-0 SEC) at South Carolina (23-0, 10-0), 2 p.m. ET on ESPN — The matchup of the final undefeated teams is finally here. A win by LSU establishes it as SEC favorites and legitimate contenders for the Final Four. The focus will be on Boston and Reese in the paint.
What else to watch this week
Virginia Tech (18-4, 8-4 ACC) at NC State (16-6, 6-5 ACC), 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Oklahoma (18-4, 8-3 Big 12) at Baylor (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), 8 p.m. ET on ESPN+
Florida State (20-5, 9-3 ACC) at Miami (15-8, 8-4), 6 p.m. ET on ACCNX
Illinois (18-6, 8-5 Big Ten) at Maryland (19-5, 10-3), 1 p.m. ET, BigTen+
Florida State (20-5, 9-3 ACC) at Virginia Tech (18-4, 8-4), 2 p.m. ET on ACCN
Oregon (14-9, 5-7 Pac-12) at UCLA (18-6, 7-5), 3 p.m. ET, Pac-12N
AP Top 25 Poll (as of Feb. 6)
1. South Carolina (23-0)
2. Indiana (22-1)
3. LSU (23-0)
4. UConn (21-3)
5. Iowa (19-4)
6. Stanford (22-3)
7. Utah (20-2)
8. Maryland (19-5)
9. Duke (20-3)
10. Notre Dame (18-4)
11. Virginia Tech (18-4)
12. Michigan (19-5)
13. Ohio State (20-4)
14. North Carolina (17-6)
15. Villanova (20-4)
16. Oklahoma (18-4)
17. Arizona (18-5)
18. UCLA (18-6)
19. Florida State (20-5)
20. Texas (18-6)
21. Iowa State (15-6)
22. NC State (16-6)
23. Gonzaga (22-3)
24. South Florida (22-4)
25. Colorado (18-5)