UConn's offensive clinic routs USC

STORRS, Conn. -- Not yet. Maybe at some point. Maybe this team and possibly this coach. Very possibly this coach.

But not this night for Dawn Staley and South Carolina. This wasn't the night for passing torches to a new power.

Not when a familiar one was so busy passing to the open shooter.

Connecticut has been doing that better than any program in the country for the past two decades. It announced it to the world in a game against an SEC team ranked No. 1 back in 1995, a game against Tennessee that wedged itself into the mainstream consciousness. Connecticut reiterated it -- yet again -- Monday night against another SEC team.

There will be a new No. 1 team after Connecticut's 87-62 win against top-ranked South Carolina.

Well, not all that new, come to think of it. This is what they do here.

"The point of coming to Connecticut is to play in these games," Geno Auriemma said of his program.

Against one of the biggest, baddest defenses in the country -- a team that ranked in the top three nationally in scoring defense and field goal defense -- Connecticut shot 55 percent from the floor and scored 87 points, the latter more than enough to earn fans who filled Gampel Pavilion despite wretched winter weather and snow-covered roads the free chicken wings that are part of a promotion tied to the team's point total. This was supposed to be the game of the year in college basketball and a potential changing of the guard. The drama wasn't supposed to be about free food.

Connecticut outplayed South Carolina on both ends of the court, but what it did on offense was a clinic. Yes, the lopsided victory looks like just another Huskies blowout, but they had to play a phenomenal game of basketball to win by 25 points.

"They think about who should shoot the ball, who should have the ball in their hands," Staley said of a team that scored 37 more points than her average opponent. "And they're patient enough to wait for it. And if you lose patience, they're going to score easily. That's what they did to us. Obviously, we've got some things to work on. But from an efficiency standpoint, from finding the right person to shoot the ball, it makes basketball a beautiful thing to see."

Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck combined for 40 points, mostly by using their edge in quickness to get past and around South Carolina's bigger defenders. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis led all scorers with 23 points, hitting 5 of 6 attempts from the 3-point line but also posting up smaller defenders in the lane in one of the only size mismatches in Connecticut's favor. In four career games against No. 1 teams, she's averaging 20.8 points and shooting 61 percent.

"We weren't settling," Stewart said. "We were really attacking them. We knew that we could drive past some of their bigs. We got the shots that we wanted. And we knocked them down."

And the biggest presence on the court was the player who ran that offense, the smallest player on a court of giants.

With the first half winding to a close, Huskies guard Moriah Jefferson dribbled at the top of the key, calm but balanced on the balls of her feet. In front of her stood South Carolina's Tina Roy and, more distant, two tiers of Connecticut students in the stands of Gampel Pavilion. The rumble of voices started to build even before Jefferson completed the crossover that left her defender helpless. It crescendoed into a roar as she exploded to the basket and finished.

It was the same roar heard when she opened the game with a 3-pointer, when she grabbed a rebound amidst all those bigger bodies and beat nine other players in a sprint down the court, and when she leapt over the scorer's table in pursuit of a steal with the game long since decided. It was a similar roar to those that accompanied Mosqueda-Lewis lining up a 3-pointer, Stewart finishing around the basket, or that followed any of the plays that were the product of an offense at its best because the person running it got the ball where it needed to go every time -- even if that was in her hands.

"I think one of the hardest things to do is to be the point guard, be the guard with the ball, on a team with a lot of scorers because your natural instinct is to just keep everybody happy, get them the ball," Auriemma said. "You kind of overlook your own abilities a lot of times. It's walking a fine line. You want to be able to make sure right guys get the right shots at the right time. But at the same time, you've got to provide some stuff to keep the whole thing working.

"I thought tonight [Jefferson] had the perfect balance. I mean, it was unbelievable, when to shoot, when to drive it, when to pass it. She was really spectacular tonight."

One of the best examples in recent memory of scheme winning a game was what Louisville coach Jeff Walz came up with when his team played No. 1 Baylor in the NCAA tournament. Walz pinpointed every weakness in an opponent. And his team still would have lost by double digits if it hadn't knocked down 3-pointers and circus shots right and left. Connecticut attacked South Carolina exactly where it needed to attack Monday night. It was well prepared and ready for the particular challenges of its opponent. It also hit shots. Sometimes it isn't more complicated than that.

"You know when your scheme really, really works?" Auriemma said when asked about the mix of scheme and shot-making in cracking one of the nation's best defenses. "When you've got really good players. Their defense is really hard to score against. And that's why we didn't want to make it a half-court game. And that's why we wanted the game to be played full court. [Mosqueda-Lewis] got a lot of her buckets in transition, so did [Jefferson]. We felt like their defense was really good in the half court, but we wanted to test whether or not, in that transition between when they're on offense and they're going back to their half-court defense, I thought we could try to take advantage of that."

When Tiffany Mitchell got inside, finished and drew a foul on Stewart in the process in the first half, the free throw that gave her eight early points made the score 18-15 in favor of South Carolina and left the crowd quiet.

It felt like game on, like someone new had come to Storrs to stand toe-to-toe with the Huskies. It felt like a beginning.

It turned out to be the beginning of the end for South Carolina. The hole it soon found itself in too deep to escape.

No more than 10 seconds later, Jefferson crossed over Bianca Cuevas, the talented freshman nonetheless used to being the quickest player in any pairing, and drew her three-point play opportunity. Her free throw tied the game. It was the last South Carolina saw of level ground. A 13-0 run became a 20-4 run.

"You can see it on the other team's face," Jefferson said of the inevitable Connecticut run that seems to come in all of these games. "You come down, you make a shot, you get a stop, you make another shot, you get a stop. And you keep doing it. You can definitely feel them feel the pressure and they start to go down a little bit."

Except that it never came at Stanford, the loss that knocked Connecticut out of the No. 1 spot. It didn't come, at least in part, because Jefferson didn't spark it. The early weeks of her season were spent in a funk, capped by an 0-for-8 shooting performance with five turnovers in a game against Notre Dame that Connecticut somehow won anyway. But after a few days at home over the holidays, she returned refreshed and hasn't looked back -- a wise move given that no one is ever going to catch her from behind.

Now it's the Gamecocks' turn to deal with the demons in their heads.

South Carolina talked a good game leading up to Monday. Not in a cocky or braggadocios manner, but in embracing the opportunity. From Staley to the players, they didn't pretend it was just another game because it wasn't just any game. They played with the confidence, too. Even as the margin stretched out into the teens and finally north of 20 points, there weren't any bowed heads or glazed looks. Some frustration, sure, but not despair or detachment.

Play this game again -- and Mitchell said they would play it tomorrow if they could -- and South Carolina could do a better job of getting the ball inside to Alaina Coates. It could do a better job of tempering, if not completely halting, the pace at which Connecticut wanted to play. It would have a version of A'ja Wilson who had already been through this experience. There were flashes Monday, but like Stewart, who didn't fully take off as a freshman until the NCAA tournament, Wilson was not the consistent presence on either end that her size and skills suggest she will be.

South Carolina wasn't exposed. It just got beat.

"This is absolutely a part of our journey," Staley said. "I think to accomplish some milestones that we have this particular year, that's part of our journey. I think each and every time that we need to learn a lesson. We've been faced with it. This is no different. This isn't a destination game for us. We have a lot of basketball left to play."

South Carolina arrived Monday night ranked No. 1. It leaves knowing exactly what that means.