No. 1 South Carolina runs past No. 11 UConn

South Carolina guard Te-Hina Paopao drives to the basket against UConn guard Paige Bueckers during the first half of Sunday's game in Columbia, S.C. (Associated Press)
South Carolina guard Te-Hina Paopao drives to the basket against UConn guard Paige Bueckers during the first half of Sunday's game in Columbia, S.C. (Associated Press)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina coach Dawn Staley learned a little bit more about her top-ranked team and much more about her program’s direction.

Facing a pair of games without their best player in Kamilla Cardoso, the Gamecocks ran past their opponents for two blowout wins, including a 83-65 victory Sunday against No. 11 UConn.

Te-Hina Paopao, the Oregon transfer, had 21 points with five 3-pointers while junior point guard Raven Johnson had 10 points and team-high 12 rebounds.

South Carolina’s young forwards in sophomores Ashlyn Watkins and Chloe Kitts showed out for a second straight win, combining for 29 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

“I’m impressed,” Staley said.

So was her counterpart Sunday in UConn’s Geno Auriemma, who won his 1,200th game last time out and hoped to take advantage of the 6-foot-7 Cardoso’s time away for Olympic qualifying with Brazil’s national team.

“They’re a much different team than some of the ones we’ve faced,” Auriemma said. “They’re style of play is different. They’re able to keep the pressure on.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) won their 54th consecutive game at home. It did not matter who Staley put on the court, it was too much for the Huskies (19-5) in this one.

UConn hung tight early on and was down just 11-9 after Ashlynn Shade’s 3-pointer midway through the opening period.

But the South Carolina took flight after that, using a 24-11 run during the next 10 minutes to go up by double digits. UConn never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way as South Carolina moved to 6-0 this season against ranked opponents.

Paopao finished with her highest point total at South Carolina and it came after a four-game stretch where she made five 3-pointers combined.

“You’ve just got to stay locked in,” Paopao said. “They went in.”

South Carolina’s smothering defense was a big factor, fronting Bueckers throughout. The UConn star finished with 20 points, but on 8-of-20 shooting.

“We just wanted to make it hard for her,” Staley said of Bueckers. “She definitely felt our presence on her.”

Aaliyah Edwards had 20 points and 11 rebounds for UConn.

The Huskies shot just 5-of-19 (26 percent) in the opening quarter as South Carolina steadily built its lead.

Watkins brought the sold-out crowd to its feet in the first quarter with a chase-down block of streaking KK Arnold, who looked like she had a clear lane to a layup.

Notes: When this series began, the Huskies were by far the better program and the most dominant in the country. Now, UConn is clearly a step or two behind the Gamecocks, who have won both their national titles since the Huskies’ last in 2016. … The Gamecocks are streaking just like a year ago where a group of experienced upperclassmen made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to Iowa. These South Carolina youngsters look every bit as determined to go further this year. … UConn will return to Columbia for the yearly game next season, a make up for South Carolina having to play twice in a row in Connecticut in 2021 and 2023. The 2022 game scheduled for the Gamecocks arena was called off by both sides after the teams met earlier in the season in a Thanksgiving week tournament. … Sarah Strong, the country’s top uncommitted women’s recruit, was in attendance and the crowd briefly broke out into a chant of “We want Sarah.” Strong is the daughter of South Carolina native Allison Feaster, who’s known for leading 16th-seeded Harvard to the first-ever upset of a No. 1 seed in Stanford in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.