Can anyone beat UConn? How?
Kelli Anderson: The Huskies may have three All-Americas to every other Final Four team's one, but they are not invincible. The team that takes them out will have to have a brilliant game plan and a lot of luck. Among the other must-haves: 1) A great post game with an ability to keep up with Connecticut on the boards; 2) Enough perimeter shooters to keep Connecticut's defense honest; 3) One defender who is committed to guarding Maya Moore and another who is committed to defending Renee Montgomery; 4) Guards who can handle the ball under pressure and who will value every possession; 5) An ability to dictate pace. Stanford, the one Final Four team Connecticut hasn't already beaten this year, probably has the best tools to make the challenge, plus the Cardinal has something Connecticut doesn't see very often: a starting lineup that is all 6 feet or taller.
Stanford's biggest concern is its backcourt, which has had trouble with pressure in the past. Connecticut's one potential weak spot is a lack of overall team depth, so here's an idea: Get all of the Big Three into foul trouble. It would be a first -- as a team the Huskies average just over 12 fouls a game -- but doing something no team has done yet is what it's going to take to beat the Huskies.
Andrew Lawrence: So far, 33 teams have tried and all have failed. Two of them, Oklahoma and Louisville, reached the Final Four but never got close to the Huskies in any of their regular-season matchups. The Sooners lost by 28 in Storrs on Nov. 30, while the Cardinals lost by 28 (also in Storrs) on Jan. 26 and then were blown out by 39 in the Big East tournament final.
That leaves Stanford, which boasts a phenomenal center in junior Jayne Appel but won't have deadeye shooting guard JJ Hones -- who tore her left ACL on Nov. 23 -- to relieve pressure from the post. The team that has the best chance of beating the Huskies has to be able to get balanced scoring from their starting five and some solid contributions off bench, which brings us back to Oklahoma. The Sooners counter UConn's Big Three of Renee Montgomery, Maya Moore and Tina Charles with a big three of their own in Courtney Paris, Danielle Robinson and Whitney Hand, and boast one of the country's top sixth women in junior Nyeshia Stevenson. If they can stop Connecticut from going on one of their mammoth second-half opening runs, I'd say they've got a shot. A slim one, but a shot nonetheless.
Tracy Schultz: Sure they can. The first thing is that they have to believe that, and all three of those teams joining them in the Final Four have that covered. Connecticut hasn't looked as dominant lately as it did during the regular season or Big East Tournament: one blueprint to follow came from Arizona State, which did a good job of disrupting their offense in the regional final (unfortunately for the Sun Devils, they just couldn't capitalize on the turnovers they caused).
It may sound basic, but if you can force UConn into turnovers and convert those turnovers to points, you're really going to help yourself. You also have to limit their second chances, so rebounding is a huge factor. Tina Charles made that tough for ASU, but she struggled against Cal. If you can get inside early and have success, you can frustrate her and take her out of the mix. Then, you just have to hope the next one doesn't come in and hurt you.
Which players have stood out to you so far this tournament?
Kelli Anderson: Baylor's Kelli Griffin was spectacular in the Bears' second-round 60-58 win over South Dakota State. The sophomore guard averages fewer than seven points a game but in this nail biter she scored 21, including the game-winning bucket from outside the lane with half a second remaining.
Another player I'm sorry to see exit is Arizona State's senior do-it-all Briann January, the two-time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Asked to take over the point guard role after the Sun Devils' top scorer, Dymond Simon, went out with a knee injury in a game against Stanford in early March, January overcame foul trouble and a sprained ankle to make 11 points and six assists in a come-from-behind win over Florida State in the second round, and she blistered Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, scoring a game-high 22 points on 8 for 10 shooting in 25 minutes. Alas, neither her 12 points nor the 18 of teammate of Danielle Orsillo -- nor the waves of Sun Devil subs coming in every few minutes -- was enough to hold off Connecticut in the Trenton Regional Final.
Andrew Lawrence: Everybody talks about Maya Moore but, for my money, Renee Montgomery is who makes Connecticut's seven-second offense go. Her game reminds me a lot of former Illini guard Luther Head: she's a whiz with the ball and impossible to defend when the Huskies are on the break because she's such a good shooter (she's not only got Head's three-point ability but also his knack with the pull-up jumper as well), an unselfish passer and a great all around finisher.
What's more, her rhythm is infectious. When she gets going, the Huskies are unstoppable.
Tracy Schultz: Jayne Appel has to be at the top of that list. After watching the trouble Iowa State had with Alyssa DeHaan, you knew Appel had the potential or a good game, but 46 points and 16 rebounds? That was crazy.
And even though her team's done, Marissa Coleman's performance (42 points, 14 rebounds) in the regional semifinal against Vanderbilt is one that will be hard to forget. It's right up there with Appel's because of the numbers and the situation: Maryland was down 18, and Coleman put that team on her back and dominated.
Whitney Hand struggled early in the tournament while recovering from a broken finger but she really came through against Pittsburgh and hit key shots in Oklahoma's comeback against Purdue in the regional final. She's hit seven three-pointers in the last two games. She might be a freshman, but Hand is incredibly confident, and when she's hitting shots, the Sooners are hard to beat.
Which team has surprised you most?
Kelli Anderson: Arizona State. I was watching the Stanford-ASU game when Dymond Simon went down with an ACL injury, and I remember thinking, what a shame, the Sun Devils might have gone far in the NCAAs this year. But they regrouped and pushed past Georgia, Florida State and the equally defense-minded Aggies of Texas A&M to earn the Elite Eight matchup with Connecticut.
I was also a bit surprised to see Louisville make it to the Final Four, given what a rotten draw the Cards got early on. Given a three-seed (they merited at least a two) they were sent to Baton Rouge to play 6-seed LSU on the Tigers' home court in the second round. They survived to meet Maryland in the Raleigh Regional Final, which may have been, in retrospect, a Selection Committee make-up call. After all, who would better know the Terps' tendencies than Louisville's coach Jeff Walz, a former Maryland assistant?
Andrew Lawrence: Never thought I'd find myself agreeing with ESPN's Kara Lawson, but I didn't think Louisville would make it this far either. But Angel McCoughtry has been as purposeful in her play as she has been in her postgame patter. (Do yourself a favor and watch the triumphant interview she gave on the floor after the Maryland game; she calls out both Lawson and Barack Obama!)
She's been getting a lot of help from her supporting cast too -- in particular freshman point guard Deseree' Byrd, who had 17 points, nine dimes and two steals against the Terps.
Tracy Schultz: Definitely Louisville. We've talked all season about the balance that Connecticut, Oklahoma and Stanford have. When it came to the Cardinals, though, it was always about Angel McCoughtry. Her teammates have really done a good job of balancing things out through the tournament. Deseree' Byrd had a big game against Maryland in that regional final with 17 points. Candyce Bingham has picked up her scoring, averaging nearly 16 points through the tournament and has also been a huge factor in harassing Louisville opponents. Keisha Hines has been great off the bench with seven rebounds a game, almost twice her season average. And when, you're playing against Courtney Paris, you need all the rebounding help you can get.
Every year it seems we talk about parity creeping into the women's game -- with two six-seeds and a four seed making it to the Elite Eight, did it happen this year?
Kelli Anderson: In 2004 we saw a seven, a six, a four, and a three-seed make to the Elite Eight, and only one one-seed make it to the Final Four. So if you look strictly at that measure you could make the argument that there was even more parity five years ago. Having said that, this has been a surprisingly unpredictable tournament. We had two 12-five upsets and one of the 5-seed victims was Tennessee, a team that has never failed to make the Sweet 16 since the NCAA tournament started in 1982.
In the bigger picture I do think talent -- both players and coaches-- is starting to spread out, especially in the power conferences. That's where we're really seeing what happens when athletic directors of schools that already have successful men's sports programs decide to devote resources to women's sports, specifically women's basketball. (The success of Louisville, Pitt, Cal and Texas A&M are just a few recent examples.)
Andrew Lawrence: Kinda. Home court advantage helped grease a couple of upsets -- Michigan State over Duke, Rutgers over Auburn. But outside of those two and two other first-round upsets -- Ball State over Tennessee and Minnesota over Notre Dame -- I would say that the other low seeds that reached the second week were just grossly underestimated.
Sixth-seeded Arizona State was thought to be a much worse team without junior guard Dymond Simon, but senior Briann January proved she could handle Simon's load in wins over No. 3 Florida State and No. 2 Texas A&M. Third-seeded North Carolina was thought to be a formidable team with Rashanda McCants, but she never showed up in their loss to No. 6 Purdue.
Tracy Schultz: A lot of people might say no since we're seeing some familiar teams in the Final Four, but I think parity is there. Is it as prominent as it could be? Probably not. But this season has been a drastic improvement. We saw a one seed, Duke, lose in the second round. We watched two six seeds play for a chance at the Final Four. We've got Louisville there for the first time. There was a time when teams like Tennessee could play badly and still get by. We know that's not the case any more. We saw in the last two games that teams can not only hang with the Huskies, but get a good lead on them when they're not playing well. Cal did it. Arizona State stayed close in the first half, even though they missed seven three-pointers. UConn just happened to pull itself together in time. But not everybody was so lucky.