MINNEAPOLIS — Destanni Henderson of South Carolina rated Paige Bueckers. It was two minutes into the fourth quarter of the 2022 NCAA National Championship game between the Gamecocks and the UConn Huskies on Sunday night.
Henderson dribbled the ball with his right hand as Bueckers tried to cheat a ball screen. But Henderson punctured the gap that opened up, driving full into the lane. The 5-foot-7 senior guard rose with UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards 6-3 on his hip and returned the ball from the backboard and through the net. She ran onto the field as UConn reset, tongue sticking out a little, smiling.
“She was on fire,” South Carolina associate head coach Lisa Boyer said after the game. “It was her day, her night. And she took advantage of it.”
Henderson finished the game with a career-high 26 points, four assists and three steals in South Carolina’s 64-49 victory over UConn for the program’s second national championship in five years. She is the first player since 2000 to score a career high in a national championship game. She was involved in 34 of the Gamecocks’ 64 points, shooting 9 for 20 from the field and 3 for 6 from outside the arc. Defensively, she helped hold Bueckers, the 2021 National Player of the Year, to 14 points. Bueckers shot 1 for 5 against Henderson.
“I didn’t even know I had a career high,” Henderson said. “It’s even more of a blessing, and just an honor to do this at this special time, one that we will all remember forever.”
As the clock ended at Target Center, the crowd started cheering for the Gamecocks. Even as the fans — led by big South Carolina forward and Las Vegas Aces A’ja Wilson — roared, Henderson remained calm. When she was substituted, coach Dawn Staley hugged her and slapped her on the back in celebration. Assistant Fred Chmiel wrapped Henderson in his arms and lifted her off the ground.
As the final seconds ticked away, Henderson stood by the bench, smiling, her head bowed, tears in her eyes. When her teammates ran onto the field at the buzzer, Henderson walked instead, pulling her shirt over her face to hide her emotions from the cameras and the crowd.
“It was a journey that brought me to this moment,” she said. “I had to believe in it and I had to own up to my role, and I feel like it was definitely worth it.”
Junior forward Aliyah Boston has been named Final Four MVP. But as Henderson hoisted the trophy high, confetti raining from the ceiling, the moment was a reminder of what it took for Henderson to get there: YMCA courts in his hometown of Fort Myers, Florida, at Columbia Bank, South Carolina. It was a night brewing for the South Carolina playmaker, who two years ago came off the bench.
Staley took Henderson aside in her second season and told her she wouldn’t have a starting role but would still play plenty of minutes. Henderson would end up playing all 33 games, but she didn’t start a single one that season.
“She just thought, for the good of the team, it was better for me to come off the bench,” Henderson told ESPN in January, looking back. “And that’s what I did.”
Staley told the story to the Gamecocks during the film review just days after the team’s first loss of the 2021-22 season, a 70-69 overtime loss to Missouri. He was meant to inspire his players to engage and trust the process, which she said Henderson embodied. To underscore her point, she asked a question.
“What are you saying, Henny?” Staley asked for Henderson’s response when she broke the news. “She doesn’t say much.
Henderson didn’t say much Sunday night after the game. She didn’t scream or scream. There was just the hint of a smirk and the tip of his tongue sticking out from between his lips.
“He’s a quiet soul,” Staley said. “And a smooth operator.”
Henderson’s next stop will be the WNBA draft. His Sunday night performance is the kind of moment that affects draft stock, especially in a week.
“The sky’s the limit for her,” said Minnesota Lynx guard Angel McCoughtry. “She’s going to be a great professional athlete.”
Henderson rose through the ranks to cut her part of the net, as she did everything else on Sunday night, with quiet, sweet confidence. Minimal celebration.
Just a moment for her to cherish the way she does. Not saying much.
His performance spoke loud enough.