With a rematch of last year's semifinal and a matchup between Sabrina Ionescu and Baylor's bigs, fans should be in store for an exciting Final Four.
There’s a certain beautiful symmetry to this year’s Final Four. Two No. 1 seeds will meet two No. 2 seeds in the semifinals. One of the most decorated teams in women’s college basketball history will meet a team that’s going to its first Final Four. And two of the game’s best starting fives, coached by two of the best and biggest personalities, will meet each other. We could hardly ask for more, and as we wait for the first games to begin on Friday, there will be a litany of storylines to discuss.
Who will win a rematch of last year’s semifinal that saw Arike Ogunbowale write her name in women's basketball history—and then do it again in the national championship—with the shot that knocked UConn out? If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the Adam Amin call of the shot before “The Adam Amin Call” two nights later that will live forever on YouTube and in the minds of everyone that was watching or watched afterward.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. This is essentially the same Notre Dame team, only, well, it’s not. The only change to the starting lineup is Brianna Turner in place of Kathryn Westbeld, but so much has changed in a year.
Last year the Fighting Irish came into the tournament with concerns surrounding a team weathering the storm of four ACL injuries threatening to ruin their season, including one to Turner. This season’s narrative has focused on the difficulties of playing with the “national champion” target on your back and the pressure that goes with it. A lopsided loss to UConn in South Bend and head-scratching ones to UNC and Miami likely didn’t do much to quell doubts about how far this team can go.
But this is a team with underrated players like Jackie Young and Jessica Shephard at the ready when things get tough, like when Ogunbowale picked up her third foul in the third quarter Monday and the former has to step up and fill her place, helping lead the team on a run while Notre Dame’s talisman sat on the bench.
The Fighting Irish also have Marina Mabrey, whose feistiness is always welcome to see, as well as the defensive presence of Turner on the inside and Ogunbowale threatening to implode offensively exactly when her team needs it. Ogunbowale was made for these moments and she proved it last year, and then proved it again in Notre Dame’s Sweet 16 matchup with Chennedy Carter and Texas A&M, where she and the Aggies’ guard took turns stunning the crowd. Ogunbowale is always ready for the moment, but if there was anyone you’d put money on who could—and already has—gameplanned against her and the Fighting Irish, it’d be Geno Auriemma.
There’s no doubt that UConn still feels some kind of way about being knocked out last year, and seeing Ogunbowale’s shot on repeat all throughout the season has likely only fueled the Huskies' fire. And after Napheesa Collier’s Naismith finalist snub and receiving the No. 2 seed in the Albany region, this team looks hungry to exorcise some demons.
If there’s any starting five that can match Notre Dame’s, it’s UConn’s, boasting freshman phenom Christyn Williams, experienced players in Megan Walker and Crystal Dangerfield and senior stars Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. Samuelson shook off worries about potentially being banged up by dropping 29 on No. 1 seed Louisville and breathing even more life into the Huskies’ title challenge.
Williams has been having an under-the-radar great tournament and is doing well to back up her preseason comments about bringing a championship to UConn. She had a coming out party in South Bend in which she scored 28 points and showed the Fighting Irish what she’s capable of.
Combine that with the steady play of Dangerfield and Walker and the fiery Auriemma going up against one of his greatest coaching adversaries in Muffet McGraw, and we have ourselves a fantastic first half of the Final Four.
So what of the other half? It begins with the stars for Oregon and Baylor. You may have heard that Sabrina Ionescu is the Triple Double Queen who's capable of changing the outcome of a game with her ability, but the play of Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally shouldn’t be overlooked.
The post play of Hebard and Sabally will be especially important considering Baylor’s stars, Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. Cox is known as a defensive menace but she put in work in the Bears’ Elite Eight win over Iowa, pouring in 22 points to go along with five assists, two blocks and two steals.
Brown gets a lot of headlines, but it’s Cox’s ability to stretch the floor and pass from the top of the key that really seems to open up Baylor’s offense. Leave Cox open near the nail and she’ll survey the floor for cutters and either unleash a quick interior pass for a cutting Juicy Landrum or Didi Richards or unfurl a jumper that makes you wonder what exactly you can do to stop her.
Her passing ability and sheer size matched with Brown’s smart inside game and the Baylor guards' ability to step up whenever they’re needed explains why the Bears have only lost one game this season and entere the tournament as the top overall seed. And it doesn’t hurt that their coach brings this much sauce for an Elite Eight game.
If Oregon is to advance to the national championship game, it will first need to neutralize Cox and Brown on the offensive end and then find a way to overcome Baylor’s stifling defense that is led by … Cox and Brown. But if there’s anyone who can bend a defense to her will, it’s Ionescu, whose capabilities as a passer and clutch shot maker should give Baylor much more trouble than it faced Monday night.
Megan Gustafson and Iowa may have been blown out in the Elite Eight, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that the Hawkeyes weren’t exactly pushovers. If the Bears can do that to a player like Gustafson, what do they have planned for Ionescu? We will have to wait until Friday to see.
You should enjoy the next few days without basketball, but be prepared. Last year’s Final Four gave us plenty of fireworks, and this year seems to be just as jampacked with action. One of the most compelling and open seasons in college basketball has left us with a couple of familiar storylines and quite a bit of symmetry, but even if what happens next proves to be predictable, it’s been one wild ride.