ALBANY, N.Y. — As both longtime Philadelphia-area Hall of Fame women’s basketball coaches Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley know from their culinary experiences in their youth, not all grinders are similar.
Likewise, Saturday afternoon in the semifinals of the Albany Regional of the women’s NCAA tournament at the Times Union Center, each team went its own “grinder” route to land in the Elite Eight and Monday night’s highly anticipated showdown to determine who will move on to next weekend’s women’s Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.
No. 2 seeded South Carolina spent the entire game pursued by 11th-seeded Buffalo, until finally shattering the glass slippers of the Cinderella Bulls to gain a 79-63 victory.
Auriemma jokingly considered his top-seeded and unbeaten Huskies’ 72-59 victory over fifth-seeded Duke (24-9) would be considered a grind-out win because UConn (35-0) didn’t obliterate the Blue Devils as they did in the 140-point onslaught against St. Francis (Pa.) last weekend in the opening round.
It’s not like the old days of Tennessee and Connecticut, when the two national rivals dominated the conversation of their potential meeting the moment they arrived on the scene. Though Monday’s matchup of what many expected to be last season’s national title game is now reality, neither side spoke much about the other either at Friday’s preview or after Saturday’s respective victories. That will come Sunday when the Staley and Auriemma take the podium.
Besides, the teams already met this season in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 1, with UConn providing a lopsided 83-58 setback.
For the moment, the discussion is more about how South Carolina (29-6) ousted the Bulls (29-6), a mid-major out of the Mid-American Conference, to reach the Elite Eight for the third time in four years, while UConn is now playing the next round for the 13th straight season, a record 11 of which led to national championships.
The Gamecocks did not play clinic basketball, committing 26 turnovers and holding a slim 62-56 lead with 6 minutes, 8 seconds left in the game until their athleticism took hold.
“I just thought we played too fast,” Staley said. “I think our team was anxious to play.”
Still, despite the team’s subpar outing, South Carolina senior A’ja Wilson, the consensus national player of the year and likely No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick next month, still delivered 20 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks and a pair of steals.
“A’ja walked, like, five times,” Staley said. “That’s uncharacteristic of her.”
Wilson said: “I don’t really think it was them that was frustrating me. I think it was myself. I really kind of got — this whole tournament I’ve really been inside my head a lot.”
Staley, though, was happy that Alexis Jennings matched Wilson’s 20 points and got nine rebounds to help a huge 48-21 rebounding advantage by the Gamecocks.
Doniyah Cliney also scored in double figures with 12 points.
Cierra Dillard, a junior transfer from Massachusetts, had 29 points to keep Buffalo in pursuit in the wake of its earlier upsets of No. 6 South Florida and No. 3 Florida State last weekend.
The loss ended a breakthrough effort for the Bulls, whose nearby location four hours from here, helped produce a crowd of 10,658 that also was aided by the arena’s proximity to the state of Connecticut.
“What fight, what character,” veteran coach and former Syracuse star Felisha Legette-Jack said of her squad. “These competitive young ladies, they are going to struggle for the next day or 24 hours. But when all is said and done, we’re going to be just proud.”
That done, it was time for Connecticut to resume its rivalry with Duke. The Huskies opened with a 10-2 lead before the Blue Devils closed it to trail, 20-14, at the end of the first quarter.,Then UConn went into high octane mode to soar to a 40-20 halftime lead.
Duke then sliced the deficit to 13, but UConn closed the third back with a lopsided 51-31 domination. In the final period, the Huskies’ lead grew to 22 before Duke finished in a rush in the final 2-1/2 minutes to make the differential 15 points.
Gabby Williams had an all around effort for UConn with 15 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, along with a pair of blocks and steals. Napheesa Collier had a double-double, with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Kia Nurse, a niece of Donovan McNabb, had 10 points, Katie Lou Samuelson scored 15, and Azura Stevens, a transfer from the Blue Devils playing her former team, had eight points and 12 rebounds.
For Duke, Leana Odom had 22 points and Lexi Brown, whose first two collegiate years were at Maryland, had 10 points.
“Today wasn’t one of those games where you just run up and down and shoot 25 threes and everything goes great,” Auriemma said. “You have to grind it out against a good team. It is not as easy as we make it look sometimes. This is not easy stuff. This idea that, well, ‘They have all the best players; of course, they should win every game by 40.’ ”
Noting the large number of high school all-Americans on Duke, Auriemma said: “So when you’re playing against pretty good players, you shouldn’t be able to win by the numbers that we win by sometimes, and certainly not in the NCAA tournament. That makes no sense. Not at this stage of the tournament, anyway.”