COLUMBIA, S.C. -- On Jan. 3, 1998, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team was welcomed by 24,597 orange-clad fans to Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. The 84-69 loss to Tennessee marks the only time in program history the Huskies have played the reigning national champion on the road.
That will change.
A crowd of 18,000 is expected here Thursday night as 2017 national champion and No. 7 South Carolina entertains top-ranked UConn for a non-league showdown at Colonial Life Arena.
"We need games like this if we want to be successful in the NCAA tournament," UConn All-American Gabby Williams said. "We have guys who have played there, four out of five starters. We'll be well prepared and we'll know how to handle it."
It's the fourth consecutive year the Huskies and Gamecocks have met with UConn winning the first three, including last season's victory at Gampel Pavilion which was No. 100 of its NCAA record 111-game winning streak.
But it's the first time they've faced off since South Carolina won its first national championship by defeating Mississippi State at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on April 2, two days after UConn saw its unprecedented four-year reign as champion end with an overtime loss to Mississippi State.
Things here will never be the same.
"It changes the expectations that people in the program have for themselves," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Leading up to a national championship, you're never quite sure if you can or not. Once you do, the expectation level is to build on that. The only way you can build on that is that you have to win another one. Sometimes that comes right away and sometimes it takes awhile. But once you have done it and you know how to do it, I think the culture inside the program changes. Is it changed forever? No, but it will be interesting to see where it is from here."
In 1990, Rebecca Lobo chose UConn in order to help UConn where it had never been before. In 2014, local product A'ja Wilson chose to play for coach Dawn Staley at South Carolina for much the same reason. The Gamecocks reached their first Final Four her freshman year and the two-time All-American forward was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 Final Four. But while Lobo graduated with the 1995 national championship, Wilson is looking for a repeat performance.
"I think the national championships changes the program tremendously," Wilson said. "I think it really boosts Coach Staley's resume, as if it needed to be boosted anymore. But to be a kid from South Carolina and to bring a championship to South Carolina, I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride in wearing South Carolina across my chest. It really is something special to bring that back home and know we have that banner hanging up.
"I can't really go outside of the university without someone stopping me and saying, 'Congratulations, let me see the ring,' and stuff like that. People keep asking me if it gets old. Not really."
South Carolina had three players from its title team taken in the first round of the 2017 WNBA Draft, though two -- including WNBA Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray -- gave up their final year of college eligibility to turn professional.
The injury bug hit the Gamecocks in the preseason as guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore was lost for the year with a knee injury. But Wilson has received plenty of support inside from transfer Alexis Jennings -- who played with UConn's Batouly Camara at Kentucky two seasons ago. Point guard Tyasha Harris has made a big jump in her game from freshman to sophomore years, much like Crystal Dangerfield has for the Huskies.
Dangerfield and Harris were teammates on the 2017 United States national team that won a silver medal at the FIBA U-19 World Cup.
"Ty is cool," Dangerfield said. "Looking at her and how she's changed this year, she's a little more aggressive with the ball and she's looking to score more. She's also sharing the ball as she leads their team in assists. She's just doing a real good job with her team."
South Carolina (18-3) is coming off a contentious home win over Missouri Sunday which avenged a loss to the Tigers earlier this month. The Gamecocks' other losses are to Notre Dame and Tennessee. Wilson did not play against the Lady Vols due to an ankle injury.
UConn (20-0) isn't 100 percent healthy but does have all of its players available.
Williams, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Napheesa Collier did play in the 66-54 win over the Gamecocks here two years ago, but the Huskies also had Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck.
"The last time we went down there we had a completely different team," Auriemma said. "It's not remotely the same team that we are bringing down there. Heck, one of the toughest things we faced was actually getting to the arena. It was so crowded and there were so many people in line, and it was loud and boisterous and the fans are passionate. The environment is unbelievable.
"I remember Stewie being Stewie and Moriah and Tuck being Moriah and Tuck. If you told me those three were going to meet us down there and play in the game, I'd feel a lot better. We'll see whether or not this team is equipped to handle that."
The Huskies have won a NCAA record 47 consecutive road games, including top 10 road wins this season at UCLA and at Texas.
UConn took command against the Bruins in the second quarter at Pauley Pavilion and were not threatened down the stretch. But against the Longhorns at the Erwin Center, the Huskies fell into a 10-point first-quarter hole before regrouping to take a lead but needed two Dangerfield free throws with 8.3 seconds left to ice a 75-71 victory.
"What's fun is to go on the road and come home with a win," Dangerfield said. "And when you have a close game, you get to see how your team grows over time. Games like this get you ready for March, even though the tournament games are at neutral sites. You never know if you'll play someone that is close to the tournament site. And when you quiet the crowd, that's when you know you're doing well."
The showdown is also a break from UConn's American Athletic Conference schedule. The Huskies have won their nine league games by an average of 47.8 points and have not been tested.
"I love being at Gampel and playing in front of our fans," Nurse said. "But when you go into an environment like South Carolina, you know what it's going to be like. There's nothing more fun than quieting a road crowd.
"It's another game, but it's great competition. I'm not demeaning the AAC, but it's great to play teams that you don't see twice a year in conference. It's like when you start preseason and all we see are our practice players over and over and over. Playing in the league is the same thing. Seeing someone else even if it's only for 40 minutes is always good."
UConn has one non-league game remaining after Thursday night. It will host No. 4 Louisville at Gampel Pavilion on Feb. 12.
Thursday night's contest is Game 2 of a four-game deal between the Gamecocks and Huskies. South Carolina will visit Connecticut next season.