South Carolina coach Dawn Staley thinks Connecticut's Breanna Stewart is a sublime player and competitor who has transcended the game. Staley would know, having redefined point guard play as the game's best player a quarter-century ago.
Now, it's up to Staley to gameplan against Stewart when the second-ranked Gamecocks (22-0) take on the No. 1 Huskies (22-0) on Monday night.
"When you have skill, the competitor that's in her, the willingness not to let her team lose, it's incredible," Staley said with awe.
Stewart's been the driving force for UConn in its past three NCAA titles — and has shown evidence she won't leave college going 4-for-4 in national championships. Stewart tops the Huskies in scoring, rebounding and blocks and is second in assists.
"A'ja Wilson asked me, 'How am I supposed to play her?'" Staley said. "Well, if I had the secret I would give it to every other opponent of UConn. But you've just got to play and make her play both sides of the ball."
Wilson, the 6-foot-5 sophomore, leads the Gamecocks in points and is second in rebounds. She knows Stewart presents her biggest defensive challenge.
"She is so hard to guard," Wilson said. "You've got to prepare for the shot. You've got to prepare for the drive. So you've got to not let her get into her comfort zone."
Stewart is prepared for a dogfight, too, as the teams meet in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown for a second straight year. In 2015, second-ranked UConn ended South Carolina's reign at No. 1 with an 87-62 victory.
"South Carolina has a chip on their shoulder from last year when they came here," Stewart said. "They want to redeem themselves in front of all of their home fans."
Former Connecticut great and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said South Carolina's best tactic is going straight at Stewart with post players Wilson and 6-4 Alaina Coates to draw fouls. "You can help yourself if you attack the other team's best player," she said.
Even if Stewart is slowed, Connecticut is filled with skilled, experienced performers in Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson and Gabby Williams all averaging double figure points.
"They're UConn," Staley says with a shrug.
Things to watch when No. 1 Connecticut plays No. 2 South Carolina:
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma says all the pressure is on the Gamecocks to win at home in a sold-out, 18,000-seat arena. "That's just the way of the basketball gods, that's the way they write these stories," Auriemma said Saturday after his team defeated East Carolina 92-46. "The home team is supposed to win Monday night. But I'm Italian, I believe in the Roman gods."
STREAKS AT RISK
Both Connecticut and South Carolina come in with best-in-the-nation streaks on the line. The Huskies have won 59 straight games overall, the third longest run in team and NCAA history. They last lost in November 2014 at Stanford.
The Gamecocks have won their last 45 consecutive games at Colonial Life Arena, last falling there in February 2013 to Texas A&M.
South Carolina will have two-time Southeastern Conference player of the year Tiffany Mitchell in the lineup. Mitchell sustained a lower back bruise Thursday night after a hard fall in the second quarter against Kentucky. She did not play in the second half. The Gamecocks will be without senior starter Asia Dozier for a second straight game since injuring her right hand last Sunday at Texas A&M.
BIG TIME EXPERIENCE
This is the 22nd time Connecticut has played in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game. The Huskies are 18-3, including wins over No. 1 South Carolina last season and No. 2 Notre Dame in last year's national championship game. The Gamecocks have only played in two showdowns, losing both (to No. 1 Louisiana Tech in 1982 and the No. 2 Huskies last year). South Carolina is 0-12 against No. 1 opponents.
Think women's basketball isn't big down South? The WNBA's Atlanta Dream have a fan bus making the 430-mile round trip to Columbia to attend the game. Dream fans will likely see many of college stars like Breanna Stewart and Tiffany Mitchell on their pro court the next few years either as Atlanta players or opponents.