DALLAS — Geno Auriemma spent Thursday morning re-watching his team’s 98-38 rout of Mississippi State from last year’s regional final round. He then pledged to tell his current players that they had nothing to do with that result.
“There's nobody on this team right now that had anything other than 'I was at that game' to do with that score,” Auriemma said. “If you watch that game, Stewy [Breanna Stewart], looked like an NBA player playing against high school kids. Moriah [Jefferson] was so much better than anybody on the floor. And [Morgan] Tuck just dominated long stretches of the game. So the score was like 30-4 at the end of the first quarter. I think [Katie] Lou [Samuelson] had one bucket. I don't think Kia [Nurse] had any. The other guys didn't even play. If they think they had anything to do with that win, they're going to be reminded today, no, they didn't. And this is not the same Mississippi State team we played.”
Auriemma’s squad remains the heavy favorite to win its fifth consecutive final — two wins will increase the consecutive wins streak to 113 — but this year’s group isn’t the mortal lock of previous years when the Final Four was essentially a UConn Invitational. Below, a scouting report for Friday’s Final Four games:
No. 2 Mississippi State vs. No. 1 Connecticut (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
The Case For Mississippi State: Of all the non-UConn teams, Mississippi State has looked the strongest during the NCAA Tournament. Known historically for being a defensive-first team, the Bulldogs have scored in the 90s twice (against Baylor and DePaul) and put up 75 against Washington. One place Mississippi State has an advantage over UConn is size in the post and post depth. Sophomore center TeairaMcCowan, who had a career-high 26 points against Washington, is bigger than any UConn player at 6-7. If she gets doubled in the post and makes good decisions to get the ball to open shooters such as junior combo guard Victoria Vivians and junior point guard Morgan William (41 against Baylor), Mississippi State will at least have an avenue for open shots. With McCowan and 6-5 senior center ChinweOkorie, one of Mississippi State’s goals will be to get UConn’sfrontcourt players in foul trouble. Mississippi State is ninth in the country in turnover margin (6.59 per game), so UConn’s guards (senior Saniya Chong, Nurse, a 6-0 junior, and freshman Crystal Dangerfield) are going to be key in controlling tempo.
“If I am Mississippi State I really want to pressure the basketball because I want to make players like Chong and Nurse speed things up,” said ESPN analyst Kara Lawson. “I would extend some [defense] in the full court but I would do that judiciously because I don’t want to give them too many open threes. I’d also try to get the ball inside because they have size and UConn does not. I’d be on my post kids to work very hard. I want to make the game as physical as possible because that bodes well for me with my depth.” If you believe in motivation, Schaefer called last year’s 60-point loss “a humbling experience.” You’d have to think his players will be motivated.
The Case For UConn: Here is something scary: All-America sophomore guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson has not shot well during the tournament (just 6 of 25 from three-point range) and UConn still hasn’t missed a beat. UConn has four players—Samuelson, sophomore forward Napheesa Collier, Nurse and junior wing Gabby Williams —who are all capable of taking over games in a stretch. Collier (20.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and a 68.9 field goal percentage, second-best in the nation) is a particular tough matchup given her mid-range game; Williams is arguably the nation’s best two-way player. UConn has averaged 96.5 points per game during the tournament and that’s how games are won at this point of the season: You have to convert your offensive possessions in big moments.
“I don't care how good your defense is, generally speaking, when you get to this point in the season, you're not going to win this thing with your defense,” said Auriemma. “I mean, you have to play good defense, don't get me wrong. But if you can't score, and score when you have to on demand in this tournament, it's really, really hard to win. Really hard to win.” What should worry Mississippi State is this: UConn has not played exceptionally well on offense and they are still shooting 58.7 percent from the field in four Tournament games.
Who Wins: UConn
Not only does UConn have five spots on the floor where they can score, they match-up well with Mississippi State on defense. They also have better guards than Baylor to stop William, who makes Mississippi State go. It’s been a great year for Mississippi State but look for the ride to end here. I don’t think the game will be close.
No. 2 Stanford vs. No. 1 South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
The Case For Stanford: We’re used to Stanford being led by dominant All-America scorers (players such as Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel, Chiney and NnemkadiOgwumike) but this team is truly a collective. They play unselfish basketball and have balanced scoring between senior forward Erica McCall (14.4 points), junior center Brittany McPhee (13.4 points), and senior wing KarlieSamuelson (12.8 points). Six different players have led Stanford in scoring in a game this season. How have things changed this year for head coach Tara VanDerveer? “I need more antacid,” she said on Thursday. “It's very challenging. A lot of it is game to game. This has been a great year for our team, and great growth for our team and growth for me to really figure out this puzzle. We have to figure out during the game, and that might be why sometimes it takes us a while to get going. There was a comfort, kind of a sense of comfort when Chiney was going to come to the game and give you 25 points, 15 rebounds. There was a security in that. But at the same time there's a real excitement with this team just to say, “Hey, we're going to have to make game time adjustments.” Their confidence and their resilience has been really fun.”
One thing about this team: They will be a tough out. The Cardinal came from 16 down in the second half against Notre Dame and Stanford has been down by at least seven points and come back to win six times this season, including five of its last six games. You always need a player to outperform her regular season stats in the tournament and that’s been McPhee: She’s averaging 19.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks in the NCAA Tournament. Collier is the only player with similar numbers across the board.
The Case For South Carolina: Give coach Dawn Staley a ton of credit. During the SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks lost their second best player—senior center Alana Coates—so 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 (19.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.6 bocks since the start of the SEC Tournament) as the scoring rock on the low block.
“She’s [Wilson] very athletic, a skilled player, can hit the outside shot,” said VanDerveer. “She scores low, runs the floor well and she plays with some really good guards that get her the ball. She's the proverbial load. You have to play really hard to play against her. I know our team will battle her, but it's not going to be easy.”
Since Coates’ 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. Davis has averaged 18.0 points on 51.7 percent shooting since the SEC Tournament. “I think it's just been attacking the paint, being aggressive, not just settling for jump shots,” Davis said. “Just kind of looking past that first defender, and trying to get points in the paint.” Fellow guards Tyasha Harris (a career-best 16 points against FSU) and Allisha Gray (19 points against Quinnipiac) have also been terrific. South Carolina has become a tougher team to guard in the tournament because they’ve been forced to spread the ball around and attack from the driving lanes as opposed to dumping it into Coates and Wilson. Harris is a freshman but she hasn’t played like a first-year point guard — her assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.1
Who Wins: South Carolina
This is truly a toss-up game — the oddsmakers favor South Carolina by -2 — and I’d expect it to come down to the final five minutes. Wilson is the most dominant player on the floor and if she stays out of foul trouble, which she did not do against Florida State, South Carolina has a player they can feed in the stretch for post baskets or free throws off a foul. Staley is 0-5 lifetime against VanDerveer but I think that streak ends here. Look for the Gamecocks to win this late.