ALBANY, N.Y. -- Dynasty vs. defending champ.
Since Selection Monday, the eyes of most women's basketball fans have been drawn like magnets to the final of the Albany Region. The prospect of an Elite Eight matchup between UConn and South Carolina was too tantalizing to ignore. Never mind that there were three rounds of obstacles and no guarantees.
That game is now reality. Neither team was particularly steady or aesthetically pleasing on Saturday at the Times Union Center, but first South Carolina and then UConn advanced to set up a Monday showdown (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) for a second time this year, this time with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
The Gamecocks, the No. 2 seeds in Albany, needed nearly all 40 minutes to put away determined 11-seed Buffalo, whose fans drove the 4½ hours on Interstate 90 to make the early game feel like a road game for the Gamecocks. The 79-63 final was not indicative of how difficult the afternoon was for South Carolina.
UConn, meanwhile, turned in a dominant second quarter and purposeful defensive effort to dispatch Duke 72-59.
"I don't think we are playing our best basketball. I don't think we're playing as well as we did two weeks ago in the SEC tournament," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "Just the chemistry and cohesion are not there, but we found a way to win the game."
Where that is showing up most is in an area that has periodically plagued the Gamecocks all season and has definitely been an issue in three NCAA tournament games: turnovers. They committed 26 of them, some unforced, many prompted by the Bulls' hustle and relentlessness. That is after 29 in the first two games in Columbia, South Carolina.
"I just thought we played too fast. I don't think they were speeding us up because they were sagging. It was us," Staley said. "We've got to figure out a way in which we limit those turnovers and turn them into shots at the basket."
South Carolina did shoot 50.8 percent from the field. A cleaner game likely would have brought an easier result, but Buffalo made little easy for the Gamecocks. Junior Cierra Dillard, who might have had the best three-game run of anyone in the tournament, finished with 29 points and six assists (after games of 36 and 22 points in the Bulls' two wins in Tallahassee, Florida).
Dillard's pass to Autumn Jones for a layup early in the fourth quarter had Buffalo within 55-50. Then came a sloppy sequence that epitomized South Carolina's frailties and strengths all at once.
Gamecocks forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan turned the ball over but got back on defense and blocked a Stephanie Reid jumper. Moments later, South Carolina freshman Bianca Jackson coughed up the ball near midcourt. Buffalo's Summer Hemphill appeared to have a layup, but Herbert Harrigan again swatted the shot away.
South Carolina was bigger. Size was the Gamecocks' most distinct advantage against the Bulls.
Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack acknowledged the Gamecocks were also better, but taller and longer certainly helped, too. South Carolina's primary post players -- A'ja Wilson, at 6-foot-5, and Alexis Jennings, at 6-2 -- combined for 40 points and 22 rebounds.
The 5-6 Reid summed it up succinctly when asked about the South Carolina height advantage.
"They are quite large," the Buffalo senior point guard said with a wry smile and tear-filled eyes.
The Gamecocks offset some of that turnover problem with a whopping 48-21 rebounding edge. Wilson grabbed a team-best 13 of those rebounds to go along with 20 points. She also committed eight turnovers and clearly isn't at the top of her game right now.
"This whole tournament, I've been inside my head a lot. I feel like I'm defending myself, and that's not good," the three-time SEC Player of the Year said. "There were times in the game I was very frustrated with myself and felt like I wasn't contributing to my team the way I should. It's going to come back. It's going to click."
It's going to have to against UConn, a team that has limited her during her outstanding career. In two regular-season meetings the past two years, Wilson shot 9-of-30 against the Huskies. The 6-5 senior was 0-of-8 in the second half when the two met earlier this year.
Taking away its opponents' best players is exactly how UConn beat Duke on Saturday. The Blue Devils' two leading scorers, Lexie Brown (10 points) and Rebecca Greenwell (6 points), combined for just 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting. In the second quarter, when the Huskies turned a six-point lead into a 20-point halftime cushion, they limited the Duke duo to zero points and just three field goal attempts.
Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams put the clamps on Duke's best chance to win, and UConn cruised through the second half. Napheesa Collier led the way with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Katie Lou Samuelson had 15 points and made 4 of 9 3-pointers. Williams put up 15 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Nurse scored all 10 of her points in the first half.
"I think we did a great job on their backcourt, and that was a big focus for us," said Nurse, who drew a large portion of the defensive assignment on Greenwell in the second quarter.
Now that focus turns to defending the inside game of South Carolina. The matchup could determine if the Huskies reach the Final Four for the 11th straight year.
In the meeting on Feb. 1, an 83-58 UConn win, Jennings had only five points and Wilson was 4-of-18 from the field for her 14 points. But none of the Huskies think it will go that way Monday.
"The last time we played them, we got out to an early run," Williams said, referring to UConn's 29-point halftime lead. "We know they're going to put up a fight. We know that A'ja doesn't want her career to be over on Monday. It's going to be a battle."
Everyone who circled this game on their brackets two weeks ago -- who couldn't take their eyes off the Albany Regional final -- can only hope so.