Mar 31, 2021
- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
- Charlie Creme projects the women’s NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN.com.
The women’s Final Four field, which includes three No. 1 seeds, runs the gamut of experience. The UConn Huskies are looking for their 12th NCAA championship, while their semifinal opponent, the Arizona Wildcats, are in the Final Four for the first time.
On the other side of the bracket, coach Dawn Staley guided the South Carolina Gamecocks to the Final Four for the third time in the past six tournaments, and the Gamecocks’ defense was suffocating in its Elite Eight victory.
South Carolina will take on the Stanford Cardinal, who are making their 14th Final Four appearance and give the Pac-12 two teams in the national semifinals. The No. 1 overall seed, Stanford battled back to beat Louisville after facing its largest deficit of the season Tuesday. The Cardinal are deep, and their many scoring options are a big part of how they have gotten this far.
Here’s a look at Friday’s matchups in the Alamodome — South Carolina and Stanford tip at 6 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App), followed by Arizona-UConn at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App) — and what we think of the updated ESPN Basketball Power Index, which says UConn is the favorite.
How much does it matter that UConn has more Final Four experience than any women’s program in the country, while Arizona is making its first appearance in the national semifinals?
Creme: Even though Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa are the only Huskies with any true Final Four experience, I think it does matter that the UConn program has been many times before and Arizona is new to the event. And that’s because it is an event. It’s the biggest few days any of these players have experienced in their basketball lives up to this point and it’s not the same as playing a game, no matter how big, in the regular season.
The UConn coaches know exactly how to manage their players through the differences in routine and the magnitude of the moment. Everything Adia Barnes and her staff have done at Arizona is nothing short of spectacular, but she and her assistants are as new to this as the Wildcats players. Experience is important and not just on the court. All the additional media obligations are one of the extras that players often note as the biggest adjustment of going to a Final Four. Given their success over the years, the Huskies have the solution to minimizing the impact that can have on the players, but that has come from experience, something no one at Arizona has.
However, a couple of things do play in the Wildcats’ favor. This Final Four is different. They won’t have to travel there, get used to a new hotel or figure out how to keep players busy during the down time. The routine in San Antonio will largely be the same as they have experienced for the past two weeks, even if the pressure of the games ratchets up a few notches. There also won’t be as much media at this Final Four, and with all of it being done via videoconference, the players aren’t shuffled around as much.
Barnes might also be able to draw on the advice of some other Pac-12 coaches with recent trips to the Final Four. Cal (2013), Oregon State (2016), Washington (2016) and Oregon (2019) have all helped showcase how much the conference has grown beyond Stanford in the past decade. Arizona is the latest program to ride that wave. The league has risen in national prominence, and these Final Fours are evidence of that. It should be noted that each of those Pac-12 teams was also making its first Final Four trip, and all four lost in the semifinals.
Voepel: It matters a ton, for all the reasons Charlie said. This is a meeting of two very different generations of coaches who are both successful. No one has accomplished more than Geno Auriemma’s 11 NCAA titles. It’s hard to imagine we’ll ever see another program replicate this, and for the growth of the sport, it’s probably best if that’s the case.
But fresh faces in the Final Four are good, too, and we are getting that with Barnes. She’s the second former WNBA player to lead a team to the Final Four — South Carolina’s Dawn Staley was the first — and she can talk to players with first-hand experience about what’s needed to be a pro.
Barnes has been part of both of Arizona’s biggest highlights as a program: what she’s doing now as a head coach, and what she did as a player in leading the Wildcats to the 1998 Sweet 16. (She faced UConn back then, too, in the regional semifinal.) Her long history with the program and the Tucson community are big positives in terms of engaging fan support, as is winning. This Final Four trip will help Barnes in recruiting as she will work to continue to stay near the top of a very competitive Pac-12. But when it comes down to matching up with UConn right now, that’s a really tall order.
After defeating Indiana 66-53, Arizona players and coaches storm the court together in jubilation.
Arizona star guard Aari McDonald has scored 30-plus points in each of her past two games. How will her style of play test UConn, and how will the Huskies look to defend her?
Creme: McDonald’s speed differentiates her from any other player in the game. Announcers, opposing coaches and probably every scouting report in the Pac-12 say make McDonald, a lefty, go to her right. Easier said than done. Staying in front of her is so difficult. The strategy usually is to give her some room to accommodate for that speed and go under any ball screens Arizona will use to get her space to operate.
The problem in the past two games is that McDonald has used that extra room to hit 3-pointers at a blistering rate. In the Wildcats’ two wins in the regionals, against Texas A&M and Indiana, McDonald made 11-of-18 from 3-point range after being a 30% shooter for the season. If she stays that hot there really isn’t a defense for her.
UConn has one of the best team defenses in the sport. Geno Auriemma isn’t afraid to play zone, which should impede McDonald’s driving angles. In 6-foot-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa he also has a shot blocker to hinder McDonald’s ability to finish at the rim, something at which she normally excels. Williams is also a defender who can be a little physical with McDonald. She was effective at slowing down Iowa’s Caitlin Clark in the regional semifinals, although McDonald’s speed is at a different level.
Voepel: The thing we see again and again with UConn is that the Huskies relish defensive challenges. They take great pride in making a great scorer have to work harder against them than she would against any other team.
As Charlie said, McDonald’s speed is a major factor that you are not going to see very often. But because UConn has such a versatile defense, the Huskies can find ways to, if not neutralize it, at least keep it from hurting them as much as it hurts other teams.
That said, McDonald has looked as confident these past two games as she has all season, and that’s something she’s going to bring with her into Friday’s matchup. After all, she has faced some very good defenses already here in San Antonio with Texas A&M and Indiana, plus the regular-season matchups with Stanford.
Paige Bueckers goes off for 28 points in the Elite Eight to help the No. 1-seeded Huskies outlast No. 2 Baylor 69-67.
Youth and a lack of postseason experience haven’t troubled Paige Bueckers. Should we expect her to handle the sport’s biggest stage any differently?
Creme: I would expect nerves to have some impact on Bueckers. I also expect they won’t last long. She has that experienced coaching staff to guide through the preparation and initial moments. That guidance should help Bueckers more quickly reach the point where Friday night is just another game. Once that first shot goes in, any nerves that Bueckers has should melt away.
Part of Bueckers’ quick adjustment comes from the kind of player she has been her entire freshman season. She seems to have an atypical instinct to let the game come to her, while knowing exactly when she should step on the gas and then tap the brake again. That’s why Bueckers rarely takes a bad shot and her field goal percentage is 52.8%, the second best among guards in the country.
Bueckers is just 14 points away from tying Breanna Stewart for the most points by a UConn freshman in the NCAA tournament. Bueckers had 13 in the first half against Baylor on her way to 28 in the Elite Eight. She has a chance to do in five games what Stewart did in six games in 2013.
Voepel: At this point, it would be far more surprising to see Bueckers get rattled, because we just haven’t witnessed it. She has stayed poised and composed even in tense situations, and a lot of credit for that just has to go to her personality. It’s hard to come to college basketball and be this ready from the first time you step on court, but she has been.
But the other part of the credit goes to both her teammates and Auriemma. With a different group of upperclassmen, Bueckers might have gotten the cold shoulder for all the attention she has received. But the Huskies juniors are savvy enough to know that is out of her control, and they also understand how much she is contributing to this team.
And Auriemma has said several times he has changed some things about his coaching style with this team of seven freshmen. He lets Bueckers have a little fun, and he has encouraged her without quite as much of the traditional Auriemma sarcasm. All of this has helped Bueckers have one of the smoothest freshman seasons we’ve seen, especially for someone who has so much weight on her regarding the team’s success.
Texas notched the first scoreless quarter in women’s NCAA tournament history since quarters were implemented in 2016. We’ve written plenty about South Carolina’s defense, but has it hit another level heading into the semifinals?
Creme: If the Gamecocks are going to win a national championship it will come on the back of their defense. It’s South Carolina’s calling card. In two of their four games on the way to the season’s final weekend, the Gamecocks didn’t even score 65 points. That is the point: They don’t have to. Three of those four opponents in the tournament have scored 53 or fewer points. South Carolina’s defense was very good during the regular season. Now it’s exceptional.
But doing something as extreme as holding another team scoreless over a 10-minute stretch requires some help. Bad offense by Texas contributed to the record-setting quarter. The Longhorns have had trouble with offensive consistency all season long. They were the good version in Sunday’s upset of Maryland, executing in nearly every key moment. The offense that scored fewer than 60 points five times this season resurfaced on Tuesday. Playing against South Carolina doesn’t help any team searching for offense.
Most analysis prior to the game focused on the individual battle in the middle between South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Texas’ Charli Collier. The Longhorns need Collier’s scoring. They needed her to outduel Boston. She couldn’t. Boston, who is the anchor of South Carolina’s outstanding defense, pushed Collier around most of the game, holding her to four points on 2-of-10 shooting. Collier also never went to the free throw line. If Staley was hoping for a perfect defensive performance, Boston might have delivered.
One-seed South Carolina cruises past 6-seed Texas 62-34 to makes its third Final Four appearance, all of which came under Dawn Staley.
Voepel: Staley is really pleased with how her team has played so far. The sophomores, of course, didn’t get NCAA tournament experience last year, but they have played like veterans in this tournament. It was a process all season to get the defense to where it is now, but the Gamecocks have shown a lot of maturity during that journey.
“They are all able to put things to the side, focus on the task at hand,” Staley said. “I am just incredibly proud of them. I’m glad I’m part of their village.
“They are incredibly strong. I do think we are mentally tough. I questioned that from time to time.”
Anna Wilson’s first bucket of the game comes at the right time as she extends Stanford’s lead to the delight of her brother, Russell.
Stanford’s rally from a 12-point halftime deficit is its largest comeback of the past four seasons. What did that slow first half expose about the No. 1 overall seed? And what do the Cardinal learn from it to prepare for South Carolina?
Creme: Stanford just wasn’t Stanford for 2½ quarters. The Cardinal uncharacteristically seemed to lack focus and didn’t have the kind of intensity that an Elite Eight game against a No. 2 seed should warrant. The missed layups, poorly run sets and botched assignments on defense were perplexing.
Then down 45-33 with 5:29 left in the third quarter, Haley Jones scored on a putback off a Lexie Hull miss and Stanford flipped a switch. The Cardinal outscored Louisville 45-17 over the final 15½ minutes. It took a while, but the real Stanford showed up.
Ashten Prechtel, who didn’t even play a full minute in the first half, made all six of her shots in the second half, including three 3-pointers for 16 points. Kiana Williams, who looked tight in the first half and made just 1 of 11 shots, was 5-of-9 in the second half. Her shooting touch returned and so did that smile. She now gets to finish her career in the Final Four in her hometown.
In one game we saw the worst of Stanford and the best. The second half was a microcosm of how devastating the Cardinal can be on both ends of the floor. The outcome was about Stanford finding its offense rhythm, but the defense contributed. too. Louisville went from open looks and nearly 52% shooting in the first half to 30% after halftime. If Stanford plays 40 minutes at that second-half level, Tara VanDerveer might finally get that third national title.
Voepel: We’ve been talking about Stanford’s many weapons, and Tuesday we saw just how important that was. What also showed was that the Cardinal can take a punch and not lose their composure, because Louisville gave them a scare, and it didn’t stop Stanford.
For the most part, Stanford has cruised past all its opponents since the Cardinal’s last close game, which was Feb. 15 against Oregon, a 63-61 victory. Tuesday, they could have gotten rattled after such a tough first half, but they stayed the course and turned back into the team we’ve seen for most of the season.
We’ve talked about how good South Carolina’s defense is, but Stanford is very good on that end of the court, too.
The updated BPI says UConn is a 44% favorite to win the title, with Stanford (30%), South Carolina (19%) and Arizona (7%) trailing the Huskies. Which team is your favorite after 60 games?
Voepel: I’m staying with Stanford. Yes, the Cardinal’s first half no doubt frightened their fans, who are so hopeful that this is finally the year for them to win the championship again after such a long wait. But maybe Tuesday’s game was their shaky one, and they won’t have that happen again. They can’t afford to against the Gamecocks.
I easily can see, though, why the numbers are going for UConn, which had the toughest Elite Eight opponent in Baylor, and survived that. The Huskies also have what appears to be a pretty big advantage in their semifinal against Arizona, while Stanford and South Carolina should be a real battle.
A lot is lining up for UConn to win its 12th championship. And we might see a repeat of the 2010 NCAA final that was right here in the Alamodome matching Stanford and UConn. Hopefully we won’t see a game that is as bad as that one was (UConn won 53-47). But I just think there has been some Stanford mojo all this season that could carry the Cardinal through.
Creme: Like Mechelle, I picked Stanford at the start of the tournament. I would be lying if that first half by the Cardinal didn’t concern me. That can’t happen again if the Cardinal are going to win the title. While I don’t think it will repeat itself, I am now leaning toward UConn to win its 12th championship.
While the Huskies might have had the toughest draw in the Elite Eight, they now have the benefit of playing a No. 3 seed in the national semifinals while the other two No. 1 seeds have to battle in the other game. Those same BPI numbers that favor UConn also have Arizona as the least likely team to win the title. The Wildcats are not an easy out, but mathematically speaking, should the Huskies get to Sunday night, it should be with a little more gas in the tank than what either Stanford or South Carolina will have.