Women's Final Four preview: Can any challenger end UConn's dynasty?
TAMPA, Fla.—On Old Water Street in Tampa’s airy Channel District, across the street from the site of the Women’s Final Four, the Tampa Bay History Center is currently running an exhibit on Pirates in Modern Culture, an ode to the swashbuckling Buccaneers who gained fame by stealing the treasure of others. In the game of women’s basketball, Connecticut owns the gold, winning the last two national championships and four since 2009. Plenty of people have come at the king; most have missed.
Can Maryland, Notre Dame or South Carolina end UConn’s dynasty this year? Unlikely. It’s hard to make a great argument for any team beating Connecticut over the next three days. Still, we have been asked to make the case for each of the teams who have earned a Final Four berth. Here is the road map to land in Tuesday night's title game at Amalie Arena:
No. 1 Notre Dame (35-2) vs. No. 1 South Carolina (34-2)
Tip: 6:30 p.m. ET
Last meeting: Notre Dame won 78-55 on Nov. 27, 2009 at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Case For Notre Dame: Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw does not get enough credit for elevating this program to heights few have reached. This is Notre Dame’s fifth consecutive Final Four, which is a remarkable accomplishment in the era of UConn. Notre Dame has a young team here but most of the roster has had at least one Final Four experience, and that’s a huge advantage over a South Carolina program that is new to this level.
The Irish will also have the best player on the court in this matchup. Junior All-America guard Jewell Loyd has not shot well during the NCAA tournament (at least against DePaul and Baylor), and I’d be worried about that if I were a South Carolina fan. She’s due for a big game. Loyd has averaged 19.9 points this season and 23.7 points against top 25 teams. She’s a prolific scorer, especially in transition, and she’s murder off ball screens. She’s also a very good rebounding guard. Her backcourt partner, junior Lindsay Allen, has emerged as one of the best point guards in the country (195 assists to 89 turnovers) and was Notre Dame’s best player against Stanford (28 points, including four three-pointers) and Baylor (23 points on 10 of 16 shooting). “If Notre Dame’s guards play the way they are capable of [considering] how they are playing, I’m not what sure South Carolina is able to do with them,” said ESPN analyst Kara Lawson. “The problem with Jewell Loyd is you can do a really great job on her and she is still able to make plays.”
A terrific in-game coach, McGraw is willing to deviate from a game plan if things are not working. Against Baylor, the Irish played six different defenses before halftime after the Lady Bears killed them early with points in the post. They are primarily a man-to-man defensive team, but they can do multiple things because McGraw recruits players with high basketball IQs. They also play hard on defense no matter the score: Notre Dame has held 15 of its last 17 opponents to 63 points or fewer and has forced an average of 15.6 turnovers during that time.
But the offense is what’s special. Watch Notre Dame play and you’ll always see players move without the ball.
“Everybody has a role, everybody plays their role and everybody can make an impact, especially from an offensive standpoint, where you can’t lay off anybody,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “Everybody has to be guarded, and the beautiful thing about Notre Dame is the person with the ball is not the only person that needs to be guarded. They make you guard five players on the floor.”
The Irish have additional scorers beyond Loyd and Allen, including junior wing Michaela Mabrey, who made 4 of 4 three-pointers against Baylor; freshman forward Brianna Turner, who averages 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds and was the first freshman to lead the NCAA in field goal percentage (.656) since 1996-97; and sophomore center Taya Reimer, who's averaged 11.3 points over the last 10 games. This is a very good team and the clear No. 2 behind UConn.
The Case For South Carolina
Strong, physical and skilled. South Carolina bludgeons opponents with a flood of post scoring and a deep bench. The Gamecocks are 33-0 when outscoring opponents in the paint and in those 33 games, half of South Carolina’s total points came from post scoring. They hold a 39.1-21.8 advantage this year in points in the paint.
Then there is the bench, which has tied or outscored its starters 21 times, including all four NCAA tournament games. South Carolina also has an All-America caliber point guard in Tiffany Mitchell, the SEC Player of the Year who has averaged 15.8 points against ranked teams.
The post strength consists of 6'4" sophomore center Alaina Coates (14 points against Florida State), 6-foot senior forward Aleighsa Welch and 6'5" center A’ja Wilson, the SEC Freshman of the Year and the nation’s top recruit from a year ago. Coates (five starts) and Wilson come off the bench, and Wilson is hitting 63.6 percent (14-of-22) from the field in the tournament.
“They are so strong in the post and [with] their depth,” McGraw said. “You can't even think about getting them into foul trouble or [seeing] if they play with a smaller lineup because they have so many people they can bring off the bench. Then they've got Tiffany Mitchell, who's obviously a first team All-American, one of the best guards in the country, and they've got big shooters. They have great team speed. They play really hard defensively and pressure so well. They don't have to worry about foul trouble because they have so many people on the bench. They can really go out and pressure as long as they're in the game. I think they're a really difficult matchup for us.”
South Carolina’s best path to victory involves Mitchell and fellow guard Khadijah Sessions having huge games and using its frontcourt depth to get Notre Dame in foul trouble. “South Carolina can be physical and test the limits of the referees because they know they have Wilson and Coates coming in,” Lawson said.
The Gamecocks rank 11th in the country in scoring defense, and only four opponents have scored more than 65 points against them (including UConn), but this is a different level of opponent. South Carolina’s SEC schedule is ferocious but UConn was the only top 10 team it played outside of the SEC. How will the Gamecocks react to the best opponent they’ve seen in some time?
Notre Dame statitude: Notre Dame is only the fourth Division I team to reach five Final Fours in a row, along with Connecticut, LSU and Stanford.
South Carolina statitude: The Gamecocks’ bench has been responsible for 48.7 percent of the team's 76.2 points per game (37.1 ppg).
Who wins: Notre Dame 75, South Carolina 64
No. 1 UConn (36-1) vs. No. 1 Maryland (34-2)
Tip: Approximately 9 p.m. ET
Last meeting: UConn won 72-55 on Nov. 15, 2013 in College Park
The Case For UConn: There are four first-round WNBA players in the starting lineup, including the most difficult player to check in the country in junior wing Breanna Stewart, whose length (she’s 6'4") and inside-outside ability make her impossible to guard straight up. Stewart (17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds) has a particularly tasty matchup here because Maryland lacks post size. She could go off for 30 points or more.
Next comes Moriah Jefferson, the nation’s fastest point guard and a terror as an on-ball defender. Teams used to slack off Jefferson, daring her to shoot, but they can no longer do that because she’ll hit it. She’s averaged an efficient 12.3 points in 28.2 minutes this year.
Want more? Senior guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis might be the best three-point shooter in the history of women’s basketball (she holds the all-time women’s record for three-pointers with 395). If she’s open, it’s likely going in, and she’s a killer on transition threes.
UConn also elevated its play as the season progressed thanks to Morgan Tuck, a 6-foot sophomore post scorer with a high basketball IQ. Tuck has some Hakeem Olajuwon to her game. She can score off a multitude of post moves and can get off shots against bigger players. “I think we're very fortunate that we can put her anywhere we want to put her and she's very, very effective,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “She's been able to adapt her game to fit whatever need that we have that game. So whatever we need that day, that's what she's capable of doing. Having her and Stewy [Breanna Stewart] up there really, I hope, poses a lot of problems for a lot of teams.”
The fifth starter has usually been Kia Nurse, a promising freshman guard who has averaged 10.4 points. Auriemma can also go big with Kia Stokes, a 6'4" senior center who will be drafted into the WNBA if nothing else for her athleticism and body frame. Maryland will struggle in the post against UConn’s size, and this is also not a vintage Terps team on defense (they ranked 136th in the country in field goal percentage defense). That’s a good formula for UConn.
Maryland earned its way here, but its win-loss record also looks a little buffed from feasting on a soft Big Ten. (Notre Dame beat the Terrapins 92-72 in Fort Wayne, Ind., as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and that game was 70-37 at one point.) If UConn stays out of foul trouble, it should win by double digits.
The Case For Maryland: Momentum teams are always a threat in a two-game tournament, and Maryland has won 28 consecutive games since the loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 3. This is a guard-oriented team, with senior Laurin Mincy, sophomore Lexie Brown (daughter of Dee Brown) and sophomore Shatori Walker-Kimbrough as the players who make things happen. The best path to victory (let’s face it, the only one) would be for the guards to attack UConn early in transition and hope they can get to the basket for scores or fouls. Brown, Mincy and Walker-Kimbrough also have good size and length for perimeter players, which could bother UConn. “You have to have great guards who play great, and their guards play great the whole tournament,” Auriemma said. “That's the biggest worry that we have.”
Sophomore center Brionna Jones is Maryland’s post threat. The 6'3" Jones scored 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting and had a huge block of Tennessee’s Ariel Massengake with 32 seconds left to clinch the Terrapins' Elite Eight victory. One thing working for Maryland is that most of these players experienced the Final Four last year. The moment won’t be too big. “It’s Easter Sunday,” Frese said, laughing. “So we’re hoping to be able to find a lot of baskets.”
Maryland held Tennessee to just one field goal in the final 5:18 in the Elite Eight and the Terps also hit free throws down the stretch. They come into this game with a ton of confidence—and they are going to need it. Watch the first 10 minutes of the game to see how the Terps react to UConn’s first big run. And, trust me, the run always comes. “Where they really hurt people is their runs,” Frese said. “If you’re not able to keep up with them from a scoring end, I think that’s when the game is over.”
UConn Statitude: UConn is 101-17 overall (.856) in NCAA tournament play dating to 1989.
Maryland Statitude: Brown, Jones and Kimbrough are responsible for 39.2 percent of Maryland’s 79.2 points per game.
Who Wins: UConn 78, Maryland 61