Henderson’s scoring outburst lifts Gamecocks to title

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. He led the Gamecocks in a 64-49 win.

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.

Henderson scored two more times in the fourth quarter. He did so with a long jumper and a 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 26 points, a career high, and shot 9 of 20, from the field, as the Gamecocks won the second national title. She had four assists and helped Paige Bueckers score 14 points. This was thanks to her teaming up with junior Brea Beeal, who kept the UConn star under control for 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.”

She opened the game by scoring a 3-pointer. Henderson was a sign of things to follow. She did it again in the second quarter and then hit another 3 to make South Carolina lead 30-12 at 12:25.

“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 were timely. UConn pulled within 43-37 after a 10-0 run in the final quarter. The last three points of quarter were scored by Henderson on a free shot and another coast-tocoast layup.

“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.”

More AP coverage for March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madnessAnd https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketballAnd https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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