You might not believe this, but the year did not start off well for UConn women’s basketball. About two weeks into the start of the college basketball season, coach Geno Auriemma was convinced that his team wasn’t going to be very good given how poorly it was approaching practice. The idea that UConn would struggle—at least relative to recent years—was not so far-fetched. This year’s roster presented challenges for Auriemma unlike any he had seen in previous years. Not only was this the first time since 2008 that the Huskies did not have a returning first-team All-America, UConn entered the season with just two returning starters, meaning there were questions all over the floor about who would score in late-game situations. There were also potential depth issues. In most years, Auriemma would play an eight-woman rotation. This year, he was limited to seven players he could trust with heavy minutes.
In the opening game of the season against Florida State, Auriemma’s fears became manifested. With a little under two minutes remaining in regulation, the Seminoles drew within two points of UConn, 73–71, the closest game the Huskies had faced in some time.
“I was convinced that we got major problems—this team is going to really learn a huge lesson that they haven't had to learn up until now, and it's going to hit 'em tonight, and we'll be better off for it,” Auriemma recalled this week. “If it doesn't hit 'em tonight, it's going to hit 'em against Baylor [three days later] for sure. We ended up winning that Florida State game. We probably shouldn't have. Then we won the Baylor game. I think from that day on there was this sense of, We can be pretty good if we can beat those two teams. Then when we won at Notre Dame [on Dec. 7], I think that sealed the deal. That pretty much made everybody on the team feel like, All right, maybe we should stop talking about who we don't have and start talking about who we do have.”
UConn’s top four players—sophomore guard Katie Lou Samuelson, sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, junior guard Kia Nurse and junior wing Gabby Williams—formed a cohesive unit much quicker than anyone expected. Each player raised the level of her offensive game, particularly Collier (20.6 points per game, 9.1 rebounds and a 68.9 field goal percentage, second best in the nation), who ended the season as one of the finalists for the Wooden Award. Samuelson (20.3 points and 116 three-pointers) is also a Wooden Award finalist and both she and Collier were named First Team All-Americans by the Associated Press, an honor that really could have gone to Williams (arguably the nation’s best two-way player) too.
“They all had to depend on each other instead of all depending on one person, and they never were allowed to take a break because they all had to be there every night or we weren't going to be able to do what we've done,” Auriemma said. “So you know them becoming All-Americans, they earned it. Their reputation didn't get it for them. They played the best schedule, they beat the best teams, and they did it under the glare of the lights that they play under all the time.”
The glare gets bigger on Friday night in Dallas when UConn meets Mississippi State in the late game (9:30 p.m. ET) of the Women’s Final Four. While UConn will understandably draw the most attention given it's on a 111-game winning streak and has won four consecutive national titles, Mississippi State is also a great story. The Bulldogs won a school-record 33 games and earned the program’s first trip to the Final Four. Coach Vic Schaefer, a longtime assistant under Texas A&M coach Gary Blair and one of the best defensive minds in women’s college basketball, has done a remarkable turnaround job in Starkville. When he was hired in 2013, Mississippi State was coming off a 14–16 season.
Schaefer’s teams put pressure on the ball all over the court—Mississippi State is ninth in the country in turnover margin (6.59 per game)–so UConn’s guards (senior Saniya Chong, Nurse and freshman Crystal Dangerfield) are going to be key in controlling tempo. Auriemma said that Mississippi State looks entirely different than the team UConn crushed last year 98–38 in the regional semifinals in Bridgeport, even though it has similar players. “We've grown a lot since last year's debacle up in Bridgeport,” Schaefer said. “That's a humbling experience, going through that. I think our team has really grown from that, really been [a] part of why we've had the season we've had.”
One place Mississippi State has an advantage over UConn is in the post. Sophomore center Teaira McCowan, who had a career-high 26 points against Washington in the Sweet 16, is bigger than any UConn player at 6' 7". If she gets doubled, one of the keys for Mississippi State having a shot at an upset will be if McCowan makes good decisions from the post to get the ball to open shooters.
“I think one thing we've got to do is we got to score,” Schaefer said. “I mean, it's not going to be a 50–48 game. That's where we've been different in the last two and a half weeks. We've kind of maybe not focused so much on trying to hold everybody scoreless We focus more on, O.K., here is how we can attack and score a little bit. If you look at our scores in the NCAA tournament, we've been able to score some points. I think that's what's different about our team right now.”
Mississippi State reached the 90s twice in the NCAA tournament (against Baylor and DePaul) and scored 75 against Washington. In the win over the top-seeded Lady Bears in the Oklahoma City Regional final, senior guard Morgan William had an all-time NCAA performance with 41 points on 13 of 22 shooting, including six three-pointers.
“It was certainly one of the more remarkable performances that I've seen in the NCAAs, especially by a kid that isn't necessarily used to those kind of performances,” Auriemma said. “So for her to have the kind of game she had in the biggest spot she's probably ever been in, obviously her game is way bigger than her size. It was fearless. That's the best way I can describe it. She played the game fearlessly. A lot of times kids get in that situation, they're afraid to lose. She was playing all out, and only [had] one thing in her mind: We're going to win.
“I was riveted to the TV the entire game. I was really, really impressed with their team as a whole, but she was just incredible. I'm going to tell Crystal Dangerfield, who may be able to look her eye-to-eye, This is a big game that could be won by little people, so you better get your butt in gear.”
Mississippi State is arguably the second best team remaining in the tournament, but it doesn't have many avenues to victory. Not only does UConn have five spots on the floor where it can score, it matches up well with Mississippi State on defense given that it has wing players who can defend one-on-one. The Huskies also have better guards than Baylor did to stop William. It’s been a great year for Mississippi State, but look for the ride to end here.
The opening game of the Final Four between Stanford and South Carolina (7:30 p.m.) has great promise. South Carolina was expected to be here, but the route it took was unexpected. During the SEC tournament, the Gamecocks lost their second best player—senior center Alana Coates—so coach Dawn Staley was forced to play a smaller lineup to create driving lanes, with junior All-America forward and Player of the Year candidate A’Ja Wilson (17.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots per game) as the scoring rock in the low block. Since Coates’s injury, sophomore guard Kaela Davis (daughter of former NBA player Antonio Davis) has emerged as a game-changing player. She recorded her third-straight 20-point game in the NCAA tournament with a game-high 23 in the regional final win over Florida State. Fellow guards Tyasha Harris (a career-best 16 points against FSU) and Allisha Gray (19 points against Quinnipiac) have also been terrific. Staley, who was just named Auriemma’s successor as the coach of the women’s Olympic team, has done a terrific job finding a style to play in the wake of losing Coates.
“They went from basically a two-post team to a four-around-one team,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “They're more athletic, they spread the floor a little bit more. I think they do a lot of things really well. They have an elite player in A'ja Wilson. They get her the ball. She is a big presence down low. They run well. You have a low block presence, a great rebounding team, you have people that are moving the ball. They're fantastic one-on-one players. I think you're going to be challenged defensively, you're going to be challenged offensively because they're athletic and long. You have to rebound the ball.”
VanDerveer, of course, is a Hall of Fame coach and she deserves a ton of credit for getting Stanford to Dallas, especially with her team’s gutsy 16-point comeback against top-seeded Notre Dame in the Lexington Regional final. But this is not the vintage Stanford teams we have historically watched, with WNBA-caliber players such as Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel and Chiney and Nnemkadi Ogwumike. The strength of this Stanford group is as a collective. The Cardinal are unselfish, play hard, and have balanced scoring between senior forward Erica McCall (14.4 points), junior center Brittany McPhee (13.4 points) and senior wing Karlie Samuelson (12.8 points), who's the older sister of UConn's Katie Lou. McPhee scored 27 against Notre Dame.
“This is not a star-studded team,” VanDerveer said. “We have players that are really good at certain things, and they've got to do those things. But they understand their role, and they embrace their role. The unselfishness, just the team cohesiveness is something that you can't teach and you can't coach. It kind of has [just] happened.”
Staley said that Stanford does a great job of reading offenses and defenses and forcing teams to go to their third or fourth option on a play. “That's hard for teams which aren't organized [and] don't have great guard play,” Staley said. “For us, they'll be a challenge, but we also have seen a lot of basketball. We've seen a lot of different looks this particular year.”
What will happen on Friday? It’s a toss-up (the oddsmakers favor South Carolina by two). Wilson is the most dominant player on the floor but she has to stay out of foul trouble, which she did not do against Florida State. This is South Carolina’s second trip to the Final Four in three years, and Staley said on Tuesday that she expected her coaching staff to be better prepared. In a game this close, the team that has the best player on the court often pulls it out late. Look for South Carolina to advance behind Wilson and the emerging Davis.