STORRS, Conn. - It seemed like the rest of the state was closed. Morning anchors talked about how there was no place left to put any snow. Inside Gampel Pavilion? It was game on as soon as a charter arrived from South Carolina the day before and ESPN's truck showed up.
Fans were told they could donate their tickets to students if they couldn't make it. Forget it. Whatever toboggan they needed to get here, they got here. It doesn't happen often, the chance for Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies to even feign to be underdogs. A little snow wasn't stopping No. 2 from hosting No. 1, both with their Philly-made coaches.
Dawn Staley's South Carolina Gamecocks had earned their place at the top of the polls with 22 straight wins. UConn took it away by the third TV timeout, burying threes, forcing turnovers, playing like UConn. The final score was 87-62. Afterward, answering the first question, Staley used the word "efficient" a couple of times to best describe UConn.
"They think about who should shoot the ball and who should have the ball in their hands, and they're patient enough to wait for it," Staley said. "It makes basketball a beautiful thing to see."
Obviously, Auriemma, from Norristown, and Staley, from North Philly, scheduled this game fully aware that rivalries are good for their sport, that it needs more of them. That doesn't mean, however, that Geno needs a new Tennessee, a blood rival that takes as good as it gives, especially one coached by someone like Staley, with unique attributes of her own to offer.
Earlier in the day, they officially introduced the 2016 U.S. Olympic coaching staff, with Staley on Geno's staff.
"When you're around each other, there are a lot of things that come out," Auriemma had said of the heritage he shares with Staley, even a generation apart. "It's kind of just there, nothing specific. It's just there. It serves us well."
Of course, Staley and Auriemma both left Philly to make it really big. Geno pointed out he's been gone longer than he was there. He was the one who went to college locally, at West Chester. Staley was the one who coached a local school, Temple. Auriemma also had been an assistant at St. Joseph's and at Virginia, Staley's alma mater, before she got there.
"She was the Mo'ne Davis of her time," Auriemma said of Staley at the afternoon news conference. "She was like in seventh grade or eighth grade, something like that when I was at Virginia."
DePaul coach Doug Bruno, another USA assistant, said, "but no phone call?" (UConn was hit with a secondary rules violation for Auriemma's phone call of congratulations to the Taney Little Leaguer last summer). No, back then, Auriemma said, you could have a home visit with a seventh grader.
This was only the second time in UConn's history that the Huskies had hosted a top-ranked regular-season opponent in Storrs, and the first time since 1994-95 when Tennessee was in town. Notre Dame was No. 1 playing at Gampel in the 2001 Big East tournament, and Baylor came into the XL Center in Hartford on top in 2013. Of those three games, Baylor was the only one who got out with a win.
Staley's team is rolling through the powerhouse SEC, a stunning achievement. But right now, Breanna Stewart is the special player in college basketball and the Huskies junior kept showing why. Early on, Stewart stretched out with her right hand and redirected her own miss back in the hoop.
If South Carolina's players also get back on the charter thinking about Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and all her three-pointers, or guard Moriah Jefferson tearing all over the court, you can't blame them for that either. UConn's five starters are from Texas, upstate New York, Illinois, Orange County, Calif., and Ontario.
Staley beat out UConn for the top-ranked high school player in the country last year, but A'ja Wilson is from South Carolina. The Gamecocks are still mostly a regional group. To be the best, it will take getting the top players from every region.
This wasn't a destination game for her team, Staley made a point of saying afterward, just part of the journey. She saw those nine championship banners hanging here. South Carolina's coach did say, "They humbled us."