- Voipel dish
Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball and other college sports for espnW. Voipel began covering women’s basketball in 1984 and joined ESPN in 1996.
- Charlie Cream.
Charlie Cram predicts the women’s NCAA tournament for ESPN.com.
The women’s Final Four, with its three number one spots, offers a whole host of experiences. The UConn Huskies are looking for their 12th win of the season. The NCAA Championship and their opponent in the semifinals, the Arizona Wildcats, are in the Final Four for the first time.
On the other side of the bracket, coach Dawn Staley led the South Carolina Gamecocks to the Final Four for the third time in the last six tournaments, and the Gamecocks’ defense pushed for a win in the Elite Eight.
South Carolina will face the Stanford Cardinals for the 14th time. This will be the second final four for the Pac-12, giving the Pac-12 two teams in the semifinals. Stanford, the tournament’s No. 1 seed, defeated Louisville after losing Tuesday by the largest margin of the season. The Cardinals are deep, and their numerous scoring chances are a big part of why they’ve come so far.
Check out Friday night’s games at the Alamodome – with South Carolina and Stanford at 6 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN app), followed by Arizona-UKonn at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App) – and what we think of the updated ESPN Basketball Power Index, which lists UConn as the favorite.
What is the significance of the fact that UConn has more experience than any other women’s program in the country, while Arizona makes it to the semifinals for the first time?
Cream: Christina Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa are the only Huskies with Final Four experience, but I think it’s important that the UConn program has been around a few times and Arizona is new to the game. And that’s because it’s an event. These are the biggest days these players have experienced so far in their basketball lives, and it’s not the same as playing a game, no matter how big, in the regular season.
UConn’s coaches know exactly how to control their players due to the difference in routines and momentum. Everything Adia Barnes and her team have done in Arizona has been nothing short of spectacular, but she and her assistants are as new as the Wildcats’ players. Experience matters, and not just in the courtroom. All of the extra media obligations are one of the new things players often cite as the biggest adjustment when transitioning to the Final Four. Given their success over the years, the Huskies have a solution to minimize the impact on players, but it comes from experience, something no one in Arizona has.
However, there are a few things that work in the Wildcats’ favor. The last four are different. They don’t have to move, get used to a new hotel, or find a way to keep players busy during downtime. The defeat in San Antonio will be similar to those of the past two weeks, although the pressure of the games will be a few notches higher. Also, there won’t be as many members of the media at the finals, and since everything is via video conference, the players won’t be traveling as much.
Barnes could also benefit from the advice of some of the other Pac-12 coaches who recently reached the Final Four. Cal (2013), Oregon State (2016), Washington (2016) and Oregon (2019) have all helped show how far the conference has spread beyond Stanford in the past decade. Arizona is the latest program to ride this wave. The league has risen to the national level and these Final Fours are proof of that. It should be noted that each of these Pac-12 teams also reached the Final Four for the first time, and all four lost in the semifinals.
Voepel: It makes a huge difference, for all the reasons Charlie mentioned. It’s a meeting between two very different generations of coaches, both of whom are successful. No one has won more than 11 NCAA titles since Geno Auriemma. It’s hard to imagine another program ever repeating that, and it’s probably better for the growth of the sport if it does.
But the new faces in the Final Four are also good, and that’s what we have with Barnes. She is the second former WNBA player to lead a team to the Final Four – South Carolina’s Don Staley was the first – and she can talk to players firsthand about what it takes to become a professional.
Barnes has been involved in both highlights of the Arizona program: what she does now as head coach and what she did as a player when she led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in 1998. His long history with the program and the Tucson community is a big plus in terms of fan support, as is the win. This trip to the Final Four will help Barnes in recruiting as they strive to stay at the top of a highly competitive Pac-12. But now, when it comes to UConn, it’s a big deal.
After the 66-53 victory over Indiana, Arizona’s players and coaches ran onto the field together cheering.
Arizonastar guard Aari McDonald has scored more than 30 points in each of the last two games. How will their playstyle be tested by UConn and how will the Huskies try to protect them?
Cream: McDonald’s speed sets her apart from all other players. Announcers, opposing coaches and probably every Pac-12 scouting report says McDonald, a lefty, will go right. Easier said than done. It’s so hard to stand in front of her. The strategy is usually to give her room to utilize her speed and pass under all the ball screens Arizona uses to give her room to operate.
The problem in the last two games is that McDonald has used that extra space to hit three-pointers at a high rate. In the Wildcats’ two regional wins over Texas A&M and Indiana, McDonald made 11 of 18 three-pointers, compared to just 30 percent of his shots this season. If it stays this hot, there’s no protection for it.
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UConn has one of the best team defenses in the sport. Geno Auriemma is not afraid to play zone, which should prevent McDonald’s from driving into a corner. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who is 6-foot-4, is also a shot blocker, preventing McDonald from finishing at the edge of the net, something she usually excels at. Williams is also a defender who can be a little physical with McDonald. She slowed down Iowa’s Caitlin Clark in the regional semifinals, but McDonald’s speed is on another level.
Voepel: What we see time and time again at UConn is that the Huskies love a defensive challenge. They pride themselves on the fact that a top scorer has to work harder against them than against any other team.
As Charlie said, McDonald’s speed is an important factor that we don’t often see. But because UConn has a defense that can do anything, the Huskies can find ways to, if not neutralize them, at least keep them from getting hurt as much as other teams.
McDonald has looked as confident in the last two games as she has all season, though, and she’ll take that confidence into Friday’s game. After all, she has faced some very good defenses here in San Antonio with Texas A&M and Indiana, as well as regular season games with Stanford.
Paige Buchers scored 28 points in the Elite Eight and helped the No. 1 seeded Huskies to a 69-67 victory over No. 2 Baylor.
Youth and lack of experience in the postseason don’t deter Paige Buchers. Should we expect the sporting world in general to behave differently?
Cream: I would expect the nerves to have some effect on the Buchers. I don’t expect them to last long either. She has experienced staff to guide her in her preparation and in the first minutes. This guide should help the Bueckers get to the point faster where Friday night is just another game. As soon as the first shot is fired, Booker’s nerves will disappear.
Part of Bueckers’ quick adjustment comes from the type of player she was during her first season. She seems to have an atypical instinct for knowing exactly when to accelerate and when to brake. As a result, Bookers rarely takes a bad shot and his field goal percentage is 52.8 percent, the second best of any guard in the country.
Buchers is just 14 points behind Breanna Stewart for the most points scored by a UConn junior in the NCAA Tournament. The Bucers played Baylor 13 times in the first half and scored 28 points, a record for an Elite Eight. She has a chance to do in five games what Stewart did in six in 2013.
Voepel: At this point, it would have been much more surprising if the buccaneers had been afraid, because we just didn’t see them. She remained calm and composed, even in tense situations, and this is largely due to her personality alone. It’s hard to get into college basketball and be ready from the first step on the court, but she’s been there.
But the other part of the credit goes to her teammates and Auriemma. In any other group of seniors, Buchers might have gotten cold feet for all the attention she was getting. But the Huskies’ juniors are smart enough to know she has no choice, and they also understand how much she contributes to this team.
And Auriemma has said repeatedly that he has changed some things about his coaching style with this team of seven freshmen. He lets the Bewkers have a little fun, and he encourages them without too much traditional sarcasm with the auriemma. All of this has led to one of the smoothest rookie seasons we’ve ever seen from Bueckers, especially for someone who carries so much weight when it comes to team success.
Texas made the first scoreless quarter in women’s NCAA Tournament history with one quarter in 2016. We’ve written a lot about South Carolina’s defense, but did it reach another level in the semifinals?
Cream: If the Gamecocks want to win a national championship, they’ll do it on defense. It’s South Carolina’s calling card. The Gamecocks didn’t even score 65 points in two of their four games heading into the final weekend of the season. Here’s the thing: They don’t have to. Three of those four opponents in the tournament scored 53 points or less. South Carolina’s defense was very good during the regular season. This is now an exceptional case.
But it takes help to do something as extreme as holding the other team without a score for 10 minutes. The weakness of the Texas offense contributed to the record. The Longhorns have struggled to be consistent offensively all season. They were a good version of Maryland’s Sunday Upset and performed at almost every important moment. The offense, which has scored fewer than 60 points five times this season, showed itself Tuesday. The game against South Carolina will not help either team find an offense.
Much of the analysis before the game focused on the one-on-one battle under center between South Carolina’s Alija Boston and the Texans’ Charlie Collier. The Longhorns need the Collar points. They needed her to survive in Boston. She couldn’t. Boston, anchored by South Carolina’s excellent defense, pushed Collier around throughout most of the game and limited him to four points on 2-of-10 shooting. Collier never got to the free throw line. If Staley had hoped for a perfect defensive performance, Boston succeeded.
First-seeded South Carolina defeated sixth-seeded Texas 62-34 and won the last three foursomes under Dawn Staley.
Voepel: Staley is pleased with the way her team has played so far. The sophomores certainly didn’t have NCAA Tournament experience last year, but they played like veterans in this tournament. It’s been a long process to get the defense where it is today, but the Gamecocks have shown a lot of maturity on this journey.
You can put everything in its place and focus on what you need to do, Staley says. I’m just enormously proud of her. I’m glad to be a part of their village.
They’re incredibly strong. I think we’re mentally strong. I have questioned it from time to time.
Anna Wilson’s first bucket comes at just the right time. She reaches out to Stanford, much to the delight of her brother Russell.
Stanford’s comeback after trailing by 12 points at halftime was the biggest comeback in the last four seasons. What did the slow first half show about the #1 seed? And what does the Cardinal learn from him to prepare for South Carolina?
Cream: Stanford wasn’t Stanford for two and a half quarters. The Cardinals are not focused as usual and lack the intensity that an Elite Eight game against the number two seed should require. The missed saves, foul sets and failed defensive assignments were confusing.
Haley Jones then made it 45-33 with 5:29 remaining in the third quarter after a layup by Lexie Hull, and Stanford turned the tide. The Cardinals outscored Louisville 45-17 in the final 15½ minutes. It took a while, but the real Stanford emerged.
Esten Prechtel, who didn’t play a minute in the first half, made all of his six shots in the second half, including three 3-pointers for 16 points. Kiana Williams, who was very close to it in the first half with just 1 on 11 shots, went 5 on 9 in the second half. Her fiery touch returned, as did her smile. She will now conclude her career at the Final Four in her hometown.
In one game, we saw the worst and the best of Stanford. The second half was a microcosm of how devastating the Cardinals can be on both sides of the ball. This allowed Stanford to find its offensive rhythm, but the defense also contributed. Louisville went from nearly 52% in the first half to 30% after the break. If Stanford plays 40 minutes at the same level it did in the second half, Tara VanDerveer will finally win her third national title.
Kiana Williams (right) missed 11 consecutive shots but finished with 14 points to lead Stanford to its 14th consecutive victory. Final Four for the first time. Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports
Voepel: We talked a lot about Stanford’s weapons, and on Tuesday we saw how important they are. This also showed that the Cardinals can take a beating and don’t lose their composure, as Louisville gave them a scare, and that didn’t stop Stanford.
Since the Cardinals’ last game, a 63-61 win over Oregon on the 15th. In February, Stanford outscored all of its opponents. They might have been scared on Tuesday after such a tough first half, but they stayed on the field and returned to the team we’ve seen most of the season.
We’ve talked about how good South Carolina’s defense is, but Stanford is also very good in that regard.
The PCI update shows UConn as a 44% favorite to win the title, with Stanford (30%), South Carolina (19%) and Arizona (7%) behind the Huskies. Which team is your favorite after 60 games?
Voepel: I live at Stanford. Yes, the Cardinals’ first half certainly scared the hell out of fans who were so hopeful that this would finally be the year they would win the championship again after such a long wait. But maybe Tuesday’s game was a bust for them and they won’t let that happen again. They can’t afford that against the Gamecocks.
However, it’s easy to see why the numbers are in UConn’s favor, as they had the toughest Elite Eight opponent, Baylor, and survived. The Huskies also have what looks like a big advantage in the semifinals against Arizona, while Stanford and South Carolina should be a real struggle.
There are many indications that UConn will be making its 12th appearance. Championship. And we could be looking at a repeat of the 2010 NCAA Final, which was held here at the Alamodome and coincided with Stanford and UConn. I hope we don’t get a bad game like this (UConn won 53-47). But I think there’s some Stanford hype this season that could help the Cardinals move forward.
Cream: Like Mechell, I was betting on Stanford when we entered the tournament. I’d be lying if I wasn’t worried about the Cardinals’ first half. That won’t happen again if Cardinal wins the title. I don’t think it will happen again, but right now I’m leaning towards UConn for my 12th win. Championship.
The Huskies had the toughest draw in the Elite Eight, but they have the advantage of facing the No. 3 seed in the semifinals, while the other two No. 1 spots have yet to play a game. The same PKI numbers that favor UCON make Arizona the least likely team to win the title. The Wildcats are tough to beat, but mathematically, if the Huskies make it through Sunday night, they should still have a little more gas in the tank than Stanford or South Carolina.
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