UConn-South Carolina title tilt packs plenty of star power

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MINNEAPOLIS – The South Carolina Gamecocks held the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25 women’s poll all season about as tightly as they play defense every night.

The last test for the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament will be the Connecticut Huskies, who produced a lockdown defensive performance of their own against Stanford to reach the national championship.

Aliyah Boston showing who’s the boss in the paint, and Paige Bueckers slithering around the perimeter. Dawn Staley on one bench, and Geno Auriemma on the other. South against North.

Women’s college basketball gets the greats of the game together on the biggest stage as consistently as any sport, and this South Carolina-UConn matchup will be no different.

The Gamecocks (34-2) toppled Louisville 72-59 in the first semifinal at Target Center on Friday night, behind 23 points and 18 rebounds from Boston, the newly minted AP Player of the Year.

“With the awards, I’m really blessed, but my main focus is bringing home a national championship,” Boston said. “I’m just really locked in on that.”

After missing a close-range putback at the buzzer in a one-point loss to Stanford in the Final Four last season, Boston bounced right back this year.

“We knew this was a new team,” Boston said. “We have a lot more depth.”

The Gamecocks have been a team on a mission.

“It’s a relief right now, and it feels great. But we’re going to take in this moment, and we’re not done yet, so we still have unfinished business,” said Destanni Henderson, who hit three 3-pointers on Friday.

UConn (30-5) took care of the defending champion Cardinal, outlasting Stanford 63-58 in the second game. Bueckers had 14 points, five assists and two steals in her hometown to help get Auriemma back to the title game for the first time since 2016.

“Points are hard to come by in this tournament, and today was certainly no different,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to have to win some other way.”

Bueckers and her teammates huddled at midcourt in celebration once the buzzer sounded, most of them holding up index fingers as they shouted, “One more!” at each other in anticipation of the next – and last game – of this nothing-comes-easy season. Eight UConn players had to miss at least two games this season with injury or illness.

These Huskies, the only No. 2 seed in this Final Four, might have overachieved a little, as strange as that sounds for such a dynastic program.

“Coming in, I don’t think we’re the best team there. I don’t think we can win even if we play our `A’ game. We need help. We need Stanford to not play their best game. We need them to miss shots they normally make,” Auriemma said.

UConn has never lost in the NCAA final, sporting a staggering 11-0 record in national championships. The four straight titles the Huskies won from 2013-16 was a streak interrupted by none other than South Carolina in 2017, when UConn lost to Mississippi State on an overtime buzzer-beater in the Final Four.

The Gamecocks’ only championship came five years ago.

However, South Carolina beat UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November, pulling away from the Huskies in the fourth quarter with that stifling defense.

And nobody will have more of the spotlight Sunday than Bueckers, the smooth-shooting, lightning-quick sophomore guard. She grew up in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and grew her game at Hopkins High School, just 10 miles west of the arena that’s sold out this weekend with crowds of more than 18,000.

“It doesn’t really matter the location,” said Bueckers, who missed nearly three months this season to a left knee injury. “We’re just trying to win and keep playing with this team.”

For Bueckers, who last year became the first freshman to win the Player of the Year award, this stretch run has been all about getting back up to speed after a long layoff. Twice in the fourth quarter, she grimaced and gingerly walked around after hard landings, but there’s no way that knee – even if it’s not 100% – will keep her from going all out for the title.

“Everybody is going to lay it on the line,” Bueckers said, “and that’s just basketball.”

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.