MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The smallest player on the court came up huge in the biggest moments for South Carolina.
UConn opened the fourth quarter with a quick basket to cut South Carolina’s lead to seven in the NCAA title game Sunday night. The Huskies, with a pedigree unmatched in women’s college basketball, were trying to overcome a huge size disadvantage that put them in a double-digit hole early in the game.
Then, 5-foot-7 Destanni Henderson stepped up — and buried them. And led the Gamecocks to a 64-49 victory.
South Carolina’s senior point guard followed the UConn bucket with a driving layup, slicing her way through the lane, using her slight frame to shield the ball from a defender as she approached the hoop.
On the next trip down the court, the Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston — the AP National Player of the Year — blocked a shot at the top of the key. Henderson sprinted behind the defense, hauled in Boston’s outlet pass, and made another layup — uncontested this time.
Later in the fourth quarter, Henderson scored again on consecutive possessions, with a long jump shot and another layup. The second basket pushed South Carolina’s lead to 16 with 4:18 to play, essentially ending the hopes of the Huskies, who didn’t get closer than 10 the rest of the way.
Henderson finished with a career-high 26 points, shooting 9 of 20 from the field as the Gamecocks won their second national title. She added four assists and helped hold Paige Bueckers to 14 points, teaming with junior Brea Beal to keep the UConn star in check most of the night.
“She was super aggressive on both sides of the basketball,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said. “We started her off on Paige, and Plan B was to put a bigger body on her like Brea Beal, but we didn’t really have to do that because (Henderson) was super focused on making it really hard for her.”
Henderson provided a hint of things to come when she opened the game with a 3-pointer. She did it again to start the second quarter, then hit another 3 to put South Carolina up 30-12 just 12:25 into the game.
“I feel like my teammates just put me in a good position to score the basketball,” Henderson said. “I just found open gaps and when they collapsed in the paint, Aliyah or whoever it was passing the ball just found me out in the corner and I just let it fly.”
Many of her points proved to be timely. A 10-0 run late in the third quarter pulled UConn within 43-37. But Henderson scored the last three points of the quarter on a free throw and another coast-to-coast layup to restore order.
“She’s a quiet soul, a smooth operator,” Staley said. “She had a different look this tournament because she knew it was going to be her last tournament. So each and every game … she was locked in.”