Before South Carolina even takes the floor at Gampel Pavilion on Monday for a showdown with UConn, the Gamecocks are back where they started this season: at No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25. With previously top-ranked Louisville losing last Monday and the team that beat the Cardinals -- then-No. 4 NC State -- then falling to North Carolina on Sunday, South Carolina was bumped up to No. 1 in this week's poll.
Regardless of ranking, UConn coach Geno Auriemma already knows how tough this game will be for his Huskies, which moved up a spot to No. 2. And a big part of that will be facing South Carolina 6-foot-5 sophomore post player Aliyah Boston and the Gamecocks' defense.
"I think Aliyah has improved so much from senior in high school to where she is today," Auriemma said. "Her ballhandling, her shooting, her decision-making with the ball, defensively -- I just think she's playing a real, real high level right now. And I don't see anybody that has played that position better than she has since the season started, that's for sure."
Auriemma also complimented his own 6-foot-5 forward, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, for her well-rounded game in Friday's 87-58 victory over Marquette.
Monday's top-five showdown will include several other intriguing matchups, including how UConn's freshman guards Paige Bueckers and Nika Mühl respond to the best perimeter defense they've faced so far, led by sophomores Zia Cooke and Brea Beal and junior Destanni Henderson.
UConn allowed Arkansas, another SEC opponent, to shoot 51.6% from the field in a 90-87 loss on Jan. 28. Will UConn's defense show a lot of growth since then? Or will the Gamecocks' defense rule to give the program its first win on the road against UConn and second victory overall versus the Huskies after last season's breakthrough series victory in Columbia, South Carolina?
That's what Boston -- who had 13 points and 12 rebounds against the Huskies last February -- will be aiming for. She is part of what we'll call the defensive dozen: 12 of the best players in the country on that side of the ball.
Best post defenders
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina: It's not just her prodigious physical gifts but also the way she communicates. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said Boston is "always talking, always understanding what our opponents are doing. She sees that it's really helpful to all the players she's on the floor with, so she's louder, more active." The forward is averaging 11.4 rebounds and 3.1 blocks.
Kamilla Cardoso, Syracuse, center: She is just a freshman, but the 6-foot-7 center already has made a big impact. She is leading the Orange in scoring (15.3 points per game), rebounding (8.7) and blocks. Her 3.1 blocks per game puts her in the top 10 in the country, and she alters many other shots. She is the only freshman among the 10 finalists for the Lisa Leslie Award honoring the nation's top center.
Charli Collier, Texas: Playing for Vic Schaefer has helped Collier value her defense more, and that's one of many aspects of her game that she has elevated this season. Collier doesn't block a lot of shots like some centers (she has 19 this season), but she helps anchor the defense inside and is averaging 12.4 rebounds, to go with 21.9 points per game on the offensive end.
N'dea Jones, Texas A&M: She is one of those players who has a nose for the ball, and when the Aggies need a big rebound, the forward is usually the one who gets it. Jones is averaging 10.8 rebounds per game, and she has had two games this season in which she grabbed 18 boards. At 6-foot-2, Jones' length and quickness help her versatility on defense too.
Natasha Mack, Oklahoma State: Mack became the school's career blocks leader (177) Saturday in just her 46th game for the Cowgirls. A junior college transfer, Mack is averaging a Division I-best 4.2 blocks per game, and the forward's ability to defend guards as well adds to her elite status. She's also averaging 19.4 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.
Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA: The forward is undersized at 6 feet, but that doesn't stop Onyenwere from successfully defending post players bigger than her. It's not just her athleticism, but her tenacity that helps. The senior is averaging a career-high 8.8 rebounds per game. She is a big reason the Bruins, generally known more for their offense, are also in the upper half of the Pac-12 in defense (58.8 PPG allowed).
Best perimeter defenders
Veronica Burton, Northwestern The reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year continues to be one of the top perimeter defenders in the country. Averaging 4.2 steals per game, she leads the Big Ten and ranks second in Division I (and first among Power 5 conference players). Burton is also leading the Wildcats in scoring (17.9 PPG) and assists (4.9 APG).
Aari McDonald, Arizona: She is not just one of the Pac-12's leaders in scoring (18.8) and assists (4.8), but also in steals (2.5). Like Burton, McDonald has lockdown defensive ability, and her energy fuels Arizona. The Wildcats have been on a COVID-19 pause but are set to take on Oregon on Monday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET) in their first game since Jan. 22.
Chasity Patterson, Kentucky: She leads the SEC -- always known for outstanding perimeter defenders -- in steals at 3.5 per game, which is tied for fourth in Division I. Patterson is also second on the team in scoring (12.6 PPG) and leads the Wildcats in assists (3.2 AGP). Coach Kyra Elzy has said she's hardest on her point guard of anyone on the team, but Patterson is responding with a career-best season.
DiDi Richards, Baylor: Last year's national defensive player of the year, the 6-foot-1 Richards is always very disruptive on the perimeter with her length and lateral movement. Coach Kim Mulkey said Richards is one of the best defenders she has coached: "She works at it. To be a great defensive player, it has to be inside your soul. It has to be a personal thing. A lot of it is just will to do it."
Mykasa Robinson, Louisville: She has started just seven games this season but makes this list as the quintessential "do the little things" player whose calling card is defense. Louisville star Dana Evans credits Robinson with bringing scrappiness to what is perennially one of the ACC's top defenses. Robinson has played 35 and 32 minutes in Louisville's past two games, getting eight rebounds in each.
Anna Wilson, Stanford: Coach Tara VanDerveer often says after games how key Wilson is to the Cardinal's defense. The fifth-year senior has become a full-time starter thanks to her defense; she credits her experience and preparation. This is one of the Cardinal's best defensive teams; they lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense (54.2 PPG) and have held four of their past five foes below 50 points.
Louisville's Evans cans clutch 3 in the last minute
Louisville guard Dana Evans knocks down the clutch 3-pointer giving the Cardinals a 4-point lead with under a minute remaining.
Player of the week: Dana Evans, Louisville
Yes, the Cardinals are expected to drop from the No. 1 ranking after their first loss of the season, but Evans was brilliant in that game and in Louisville's wins over Boston College and Notre Dame. The reigning ACC player of the year averaged 26.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists. And as she showed again with her five points in the final minutes of the 71-65 win over the Irish, crunch time is Evans time.
Shoutouts also to Iowa's Caitlin Clark (30, 30) and UConn's Paige Bueckers (32, 30), freshmen guards who each hit the 30-point mark twice.
Team of the week: Northwestern
The Wildcats upset No. 11 Ohio State with a strong defensive effort, holding the Buckeyes to 57 points, their second-lowest total this season. Veronica Burton just missed a triple-double with 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. Then Northwestern followed that with a 63-60 win at Michigan State, with Burton getting 19 points and fellow guard Lindsey Pulliam 22. The Wildcats have won seven of their past eight.
Coach of the week: Aaron Johnston, South Dakota State
Both the No. 23 Jackrabbits and rival South Dakota came into their back-to-back weekend games undefeated in the Summit League. But South Dakota State prevailed 64-45 on Friday, and 80-75 on Saturday (both games were at the Jackrabbits' Frost Arena). Junior forward Myah Selland continued her terrific season with a combined 43 points and 10 assists. And Johnston -- who is in his 21st season in Brookings, South Dakota -- keeps on rolling. His squad lost just five conference games over the past three years and, at 8-0, is looking to run the table this season.
Win of the week: North Carolina
Wearing dark blue, not Carolina blue, uniforms at home on Sunday -- they looked sharp -- the Tar Heels beat the team that knocked off the No. 1 team last Monday. In a big rivalry game, North Carolina got a key victory for its NCAA tournament hopes, upsetting No. 4 NC State 76-69. The Tar Heels still have some work to do, as they're 9-8 and had lost six of seven before Sunday. But this is a good win to have on their résumé.