- Whether it's Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan, South Carolina's A'ja Wilson, Baylor's Kalani Brown or UConn's Azurá Stevens, get ready for post players to shine in the women's NCAA tournament.
You remember the shot. How could you not? At 11:10 p.m. CST on March 31, 2017, Mississippi State junior guard Morgan William hit a 14-foot pull-up jumper as time expired for a 66–64 overtime victory over the then unbeaten-in-111-games Huskies in the NCAA semifinals. Deep in the heart of Texas, the UConn women's basketball team experienced something the Han, Habsburgs and Romans know all too well.
All dynasties fall.
What you might have forgotten was the even rarer feat the Bulldogs pulled off that Friday night in Dallas: They took it to the four-time defending champions right from the opening tip. And they did it behind 6'7" center Teaira McCowan, who overpowered smaller UConn in the post. McCowan hit a pair of layups in the first three minutes to propel Mississippi State to a 22–13 first-quarter lead, a scoring deficit that the Huskies see about as often as a solar eclipse. "She got them some easy buckets, and defensively, she was able to cause problems for our two post players," says UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "That combination of things got them off to a great start."
"T is not scared," Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer says. "Nobody is going to intimidate her. I don't think any moment is too big for her. That is just how that kid is built."
This March, Mississippi State will not be the only title contender to rely on a power player inside: It's "the era of the Big Girls," as South Carolina 6'5" senior A'ja Wilson puts it. "Coming in my freshman year it was a guard-heavy game," says Wilson, the likely No. 1 pick in April's WNBA draft. "I had an opportunity to be in the Final Four in 2015, and there were big-time guards like Jewell Loyd of Notre Dame. Now, the post players are taking over. Of course, you still have [Louisville's] Asia Durr and [Ohio State's] Kelsey Mitchell and some phenomenal guards, but a post player in the tournament can give you the best of both worlds: She can give you the best shot on the court, which is in the paint, and she can also defend the paint."
A formidable five in the post will have an outsized impact on the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.
IT'S T TIME
Schaefer knows his team would not be 30–0 and ranked No. 2 without the two-way play of his junior center. He also knows how close McCowan came to leaving. During her first few months in Starkville, she entered his office distraught. Recalls Schaefer, "She says, 'Coach, I have to go home. I'm not doing well in school. I'm homesick. I'm not going to make it.'"
After a long talk, Schaefer had his staff create a program to get McCowan back on track. "I shared with her my struggles in college," Schaefer says. "I went to school two hours from home, and I spent the first three months calling collect from a gas station. I ran up a $375 phone bill three straight months calling my parents. So I could sympathize. We sat down and developed a plan. One day at a time. And she turned it around."
This season McCowan has put up epic numbers: 18.7 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, including a nation-leading 6.0 offensive boards; the women's basketball analytics site Her Hoops Stats ranks her as the country's best all-around glass cleaner. McCowan's presence in the post creates opportunities for senior All-America shooting guard Victoria Vivians (19.7 ppg) and point guards William and Jazzmun Holmes to drive and drop when they hit a road block in the lane. "She also gives us forgiveness on the defensive end, where if we get beat off the bounce, we still have a 6'7" aircraft carrier waiting," Schaefer says. "She cleans up a lot of our mess."
Schaefer is no doubt counting down the days until Wilson lands in the WNBA: He has not only had to face her up to three times a year in SEC play, but she also thwarted his title hopes last March. In the Gamecocks' 67–55 final win, Wilson finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and two steals, a runaway choice for the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. South Carolina scored 42 points in the paint (to Mississippi State's 22), including eight from Wilson after the Bulldogs had cut the lead to 54–50 with 6:54 left. "It's not only her physical skill set—she is a competitor," Schaefer says. "She is tough. When you have to have a shot, she wants to get that bucket knowing she will have two or more people hanging on her."
"She does her best work around the basket," says Auriemma. "But she is different from [Baylor's] Kalani Brown and Teaira McCowan in that she is a little more mobile, and her ability to hit perimeter jump shots will be a big key because it will be difficult to score inside against the big guys in the tournament. Anytime you have someone 6'5" who is that active and touches the ball that many times, you need to double her. You can't guard one-on-one."
In the regular season Wilson averaged 22.9 points on 54.8% shooting and had 86 blocks—as a former volleyball player her timing is impeccable. According to Her Hoops Stats, Wilson uses 35.1% of South Carolina's possessions, but despite that heavy volume, she is in the top 6% nationally in shooting efficiency (1.18 points each time she tries to shoot).
Wilson says that when the ball arrives to her in the post, she goes through a checklist. Where is the gap in the defense? How can I apply pressure? What's my most advantageous position right now? On defense her job is to protect the rim—and not to foul out given how important she is to the Gamecocks. "The paint is the area I need to be in whether that is help side or guarding my post," Wilson says. "My goal is to make them uncomfortable. Do I give them space, or do I fill the space? My biggest asset is my length and I want to contest every shot I can."
"The good posts are very good—and then there is a drop-off," says South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. "I think A'ja is just more polished now. Teaira McCowan is more polished now. [Tennessee's] Mercedes Russell came in skilled as a post player, and now she has added a little bulk and experience. Kalani Brown as well. You love up on a post player and they will excel. There is an incredible advantage to having a big who can score."
THE INSURANCE POLICY
It was clearly a first-world problem for the 11-time champions, but Auriemma talked frequently last season about being undersized, even with All-Americas Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams providing backside help. As good as Williams is—the senior is a triple-double threat who led the team in steals (75)—she is only 5'11". Collier, a 6'1" junior, is a quintessential power forward. That explains the excitement surrounding the arrival of Azurá Stevens, a 6'6" junior center who averaged a team-high 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds for Duke as a sophomore in 2015–16 before sitting out last year as a transfer. Coming off the bench for the top-ranked Huskies she has been enormously productive: 14.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 21.1 minutes a game. Her Hoop Stats ranks Stevens fourth in the country in two-point percentage at 68.7%, tops among all players on a top 10 team. She also ranks in the top 2% among players in shooting efficiency, offensive rebound rate and block rate.
"She has the length but she doesn't have the size that say Kalani Brown, Teaira McCowan, [Baylor's] Lauren Cox or [Tennessee's] Mercedes Russell have," says Auriemma. "She is more of an inside-outside kid who has to keep moving because if the game becomes a slugfest, we are generally not going to win that. It has taken a little time for her to get adjusted to what we do. As she has gotten more comfortable, we are a much different team."
While Collier will likely get the bulk of the minutes in the post during the NCAAs, Stevens can provide rim protection as well as battle Brown, McCowan or Wilson. "She doesn't have that same defensive mentality that [Breanna Stewart] had," Auriemma says. "We are trying to get Z to that point, and we are making progress. I'd like to see her block some more shots—or at least change shots even if she doesn't block them—and be a little more active around the basket."
A post player who demands double teams can provide a huge advantage in the tournament—especially if she is surrounded with players who can make shots. The Huskies have two of the best in Katie Lou Samuelson and Kia Nurse, who hit 49.0 % and 47.4%, respectively, of their attempts from beyond the arc. "Look back at our championships," Auriemma says. "Whether it was Rebecca [Lobo], Kara Wolters, Tina Charles or Stefanie Dolson or Stewie, being able to score easily in the post is crucial."
WHAT BROWN CAN DO FOR YOU
If you were going to create the ideal women's college basketball post, you'd start with Kalani Brown's gene pool. Her father is P.J. Brown, who was an exceptional 6'11" post defender during his 15 seasons in the NBA as a forward-center. Her mother, Dee, was a 6'3" forward at Louisiana Tech from 1990–91 through '92–93. "They said early on [playing in] the paint was hard and you have to be tough," says Kalani, a 6'7" junior center. "They said the position is not to be taken lightly."
While leading the Lady Bears to a 28–1 record and an eighth straight regular-season Big 12 championship, Brown averaged 19.7 points on 65.4% shooting, fifth best in the country. Her goal heading into the year was a double double every night, which she accomplished by grabbing 10.1 rebounds per game after committing to improving her fitness.
Since arriving in Waco, Brown has shed 30 pounds; she can now get down the court faster and stay on it longer. Watching her this summer at the USA Basketball training camp in Colorado Springs, Auriemma was impressed: "She moves so much better and has become a much better passer. She and [6'4" sophomore forward] Lauren Cox work great together. The change in her has been significant. It is invaluable to the success of your team to have someone who is basically automatic from the field." A lefty, Brown has also become more effective going right since so many teams were overplaying her left.
"Very few teams have a player that can guard her on an island, so most have to bring extra defenders," ESPN analyst Kara Lawson says. "She's not the best player in the country, but she's probably the player that would cause me to lose the most sleep."
Potential opponents should rest up now: SI predicts that the Lady Bears will reach the Final Four along with UConn, Mississippi State and Texas, which has six players 6'3" or taller. "Over the years the game has been about big guards," Brown says. "What we see emerging are players like Teaira McCowan, A'ja Wilson and myself. We all do different things, but ultimately we dominate the paint." The Big Girls are coming.