MINNEAPOLIS — South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson evaluated 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. She dribbled the ball with her right hand as Bueckers tried to cheat on a ball block. But Henderson burst through the gap that opened up, driving hard down the road. The 5-foot-7 senior shooting guard rose with UConn’s 6-3 Aaliyah Edwards on her hip, and blasted the ball off the backboard and through the net. She ran down the court as UConn restarted, her tongue poking out a bit, smiling.
“I was on fire,” South Carolina associate head coach Lisa Boyer said after the game. “It was her day, it was his night. And she made the most 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 to claim 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 had a hand in 34 of the Gamecocks’ 64 points, shooting 9 of 20 from the field and 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. Defensively, she helped hold Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year, to 14 points. Bueckers shot 1-5 against Henderson.
“I really didn’t even know I had a personal record,” Henderson said. “It is an even greater blessing and an honor to do so at this time, a special moment, that we will all remember forever.”
As the clock ticked down at Target Center, the crowd began to cheer on the Gamecocks. Even as the fans, led by South Carolina star and Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, roared, Henderson kept his cool. When she was replaced by her, coach Dawn Staley gave her a hug and a pat on the back to celebrate. Her assistant Fred Chmiel wrapped Henderson in her arms and lifted her off the ground.
As the last few seconds ticked by, Henderson stood near the bench, smiling, head bowed, tears in his eyes. As his teammates ran onto the court at the buzzer, Henderson walked in his place, pulling his shirt over his face to hide his emotions from the cameras and the crowd.
“It was a journey that brought me to this moment,” he said. “I had to believe and accept my role, and I feel like it really paid off.”
Junior forward Aliyah Boston was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. But when Henderson held the trophy high, with confetti raining from the ceiling, the moment was a reminder of what it took for Henderson to get there: from the YMCA courts in his hometown of Ft. Myers, Florida to the dugout in Columbia, South Carolina. This was a night in the making for the South Carolina point guard, who came off the bench two years ago.
Staley pushed Henderson aside in his second season, telling him he wouldn’t have a starting role but would still play a lot of minutes. Henderson would end up playing all 33 games, but didn’t start any that season.
The South Carolina Gamecocks defeat the UConn Huskies to win the program’s second national title.
“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 Gamecocks the story during a video studio just days after the team’s first loss of the 2021-22 season, a 70-69 overtime loss to Missouri. She intended to inspire her players to commit and trust the process, something she said Henderson epitomized. To underscore her point, she asked a question.
“What do you say, Henny?” Staley asked about Henderson’s response when he broke the news. “She doesn’t say much.” Henderson didn’t say much Sunday night after the game. She didn’t yell or yell. There was only a hint of a smile and the tip of her tongue poking out between her lips.
“She’s a quiet soul,” Staley said. “And a good operator.”
Henderson’s next stop will be the WNBA draft. Her performance on Sunday night is the kind of moment that affects the draft, especially with a week to go.
“The sky’s the limit for her,” Minnesota Lynx guard Angel McCoughtry said. “She is going to be a great professional athlete.” Henderson climbed the ladder to cut off her part of her web, just as she had done everything else on Sunday night, with calm, smooth confidence. Minimal celebration.
Just a moment for her to appreciate him the way she does. Not to say much.
His performance spoke loud enough.