MINNEAPOLIS -- South Carolina's Destanni Henderson sized up Paige Bueckers. It was two minutes into the fourth quarter of the 2022 NCAA national championship game between the Gamecocks and the UConn Huskies on Sunday night.
Henderson dribbled the ball with her right hand as Bueckers tried to cheat a ball screen. But Henderson burst through the gap that opened, driving hard down the lane. The 5-foot-7 senior guard elevated with UConn's 6-3 Aaliyah Edwards on her hip and flipped the ball off the backboard and through the net. She ran back down the court as UConn reset, tongue poked out just a little bit, smirking.
"She was on fire," South Carolina associate head coach Lisa Boyer said after the game. "It was her day, her night. And she took every advantage of it."
Henderson ended the game with a career-high 26 points, four assists and three steals in South Carolina's 64-49 victory over UConn for the program's second national championship in five years. She is the first player since 2000 to score a career high in a national championship game. She had a hand in 34 of the Gamecocks' 64 points, shooting 9-for-20 from the field and 3-for-6 from beyond the arc. Defensively, she helped hold Bueckers, 2021's national player of the year, to 14 points. Bueckers shot 1-for-5 versus Henderson.
"I really didn't even know that I had a career high," Henderson said. "It's just even more of a blessing, and just an honor to do it in this moment, a special moment, that all of us are going to remember forever."
As the clock wound down in Target Center, the crowd started cheering for the Gamecocks. Even as the fans -- led by South Carolina great and Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson -- roared, Henderson stayed calm. When she was subbed out, coach Dawn Staley gave her a hug and slapped her on the back in celebration. Assistant Fred Chmiel wrapped Henderson in his arms and lifted her off the ground.
With the final seconds ticking away, Henderson stood near the bench, smiling, her head bowed low, tears coming to her eyes. When her teammates ran onto the court at the buzzer, Henderson walked instead, pulling her shirt over her face to hide her emotions from the cameras and crowd.
"It was a journey that led me to this moment," she said. "I had to believe and had to buy into my role, and I feel like it was really worth it."
Junior forward Aliyah Boston was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. But as Henderson hoisted the trophy high, confetti raining down from the ceiling, the moment was a reminder of what it took for Henderson to get there: from the YMCA courts in her hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, to the bench in Columbia, South Carolina. This was a night years in the making for the South Carolina point guard, who two years ago was coming off the bench.
Staley pulled Henderson aside in her sophomore season and told her she wouldn't have a role as a starter but that she'd still be playing a lot of minutes. Henderson would end up playing all 33 games, but she didn't start a single one that season.
"She just thought, for the team's sake, that it was just best for me to come off the bench," Henderson said to ESPN in January, looking back. "And that's what I did."
Staley relayed the story to the Gamecocks during film study just days after the team's first loss of the 2021-22 season, a 70-69 overtime defeat to Missouri. It was meant to inspire her players to commit and to trust the process, something she said Henderson epitomized. To underscore her point, she asked a question.
"What you say, Henny?" Staley asked of Henderson's response when she delivered the news. "She don't say much."
Henderson didn't say much on Sunday night after the game. She didn't yell or scream. There was just the hint of a smirk and the tip of her tongue poking out from between her lips.
"She's a quiet soul," Staley said. "And a smooth operator."
Henderson's next stop will be the WNBA draft. Her performance on Sunday night is the kind of moment that affects draft stock, especially with it being one week away.
"The sky is the limit for her," Minnesota Lynx guard Angel McCoughtry said. "She's going to be a great professional athlete."
Henderson climbed the ladder to cut down her portion of the net, just as she did everything else on Sunday night, with a quiet, smooth confidence. Minimal celebration.
Just a moment for her to cherish in the way that she does. By not saying much.
Her performance spoke loudly enough.