UConn junior forward Azura Stevens will celebrate her 22nd birthday Thursday, and the setting for her party that night will be Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. Guests will include a few handfuls of friends and family members — those driving a few hours from her childhood home in Raleigh, N.C. — as many as 18,000 South Carolina fans, and one particularly strong opposing post player.
A'Ja Wilson, the Gamecocks' center, is a first-team All-American and widely projected as the top WNBA prospect in this year's senior class. She is 6 feet 5, and can ruin a party, or wreck a game, with her work both inside and outside.
"She's really hard to guard, I can tell you from experience," UConn senior forward Gabby Williams said. "It's hard to take things away from her, and I was tired after having to guard her."
"A really strong player, physically," junior forward Napheesa Collier said. "So one of the keys is to really force her to do things she doesn't want to do, and box out when she does get a shot off."
Williams and Collier might again play the central defensive roles on Wilson, who averages 23.1 points and 11.2 rebounds — just as they did last season in UConn's 66-55 victory over South Carolina.
That game was a different kind of party, one after which $100 bills featuring Geno Auriemma's face fell from the Gampel Pavilion rafters in celebration of the Huskies' 100th consecutive victory.
Stevens was in street clothes on the bench that night, ineligible per NCAA rules after her transfer from Duke. On Thursday, she will bring new aspects and a new option to a team with, otherwise, largely the same roster as a year ago.
Averaging 14.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, Stevens will come off the bench as a primary scorer — and to mix it up inside with Wilson, a former teammate within USA basketball.
Stevens, 6-6, is shooting a team-best 60.8 percent from the field. Collier on Tuesday called Stevens "a walking bucket for us."
"The things she does in some games on the offensive end are just hard to duplicate," Auriemma said. "There's not a lot of players that can score from as many different places as she can. She's one of these kids that's actually better on the move than she is standing still, which is unusual for somebody that size, so we're trying to take advantage of that."
Stevens said Tuesday that it's nice to dissect film of recent games and notice improvement in her play. Her development remains key to UConn's national title hopes and Auriemma has been particularly critical of her defensive shortcomings — a sign that he sees so much potential.
"I'd like to see her block some more shots, you know?" Auriemma said. "Be a little more active around the basket, or at least change some shots, even if she doesn't block them. That's going to come in really handy as we move along here this month and next month, for sure."
Stevens has 38 blocks, tied with Collier for the team lead. They are also tied for the lead in rebounding, and fouls (37 apiece, with Williams). Wilson has the ability to put opponents in foul trouble, and Steven's presence in a game like this is immeasurably valuable.
South Carolina's second-leading scorer is 6-3 forward Alex Jennings (13.0), followed by guards Tyasha Harris (11.6) and Lindsey Spann (11.2). Of the eight players who checked in last season vs. UConn, only four (due to graduation or injury) are currently with the Gamecocks, who went on to win the national championship last season.
"The things [Wilson] does around the basket, she finishes a lot better," Auriemma said. "I think she's shooting the ball with a little more confidence from the perimeter. Sometimes she may have to do a lot more than maybe she had to in the past when they had a lot of other experience players. People think they're a one-dimensional team and they're not. It's funny, when A'Ja is not in the game those other guys play and they make shots and they get after it. They're certainly not a one-dimensional team.”
In last season’s victory, which moved UConn to 25-0 on the season, Williams had 26 points and 14 rebounds in 40 minutes, Collier 18 and nine in 33.
“Gabby was absolutely magnificent the entire game, as was ‘Pheesa,” Auriemma said. “I don't know that we played a great game. I don't know that we played an above average game. We struggled in some spots. Obviously the crowd helped us a little bit. We did what we normally do. We played pretty good defense and we played pretty good on offense. We're going to have our hands full on Thursday because we're not at home and because it's a different year and it's a different team.”
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