MINNEAPOLIS — The 2022 women’s Final Four is full of some of the most recognizable stars in women’s college basketball. South Carolina‘s Aliyah Boston. Stanford‘s Haley Jones. Louisville‘s Hailey Van Lith. UConn‘s Paige Bueckers.
But for as much as those standouts have received attention for their double-double streaks, flashy plays or ability to come up with clutch baskets in key moments, that might not be how Friday’s national semifinals are won.
“I think whoever plays the best defense [Friday] is going to win the game, if I’m being completely honest,” UConn senior guard Christyn Williams said ahead of the Huskies’ matchup against defending national champion Stanford (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
All four teams advanced to the Final Four behind top-tier defenses. The four teams boast top-18 defensive ratings in Division I women’s basketball, per Her Hoop Stats, allowing between 73.7 (South Carolina) and 81.5 points (Stanford) per 100 possessions. All but Stanford are featured in the top eight.
What other factors or players could make the difference between winning and losing on the season’s biggest stage? ESPN’s Katie Barnes, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel offer their perspectives, break down the South Carolina-Louisville (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) and Stanford-UConn matchups and predict which teams will advance to Sunday’s NCAA title game.
If superstars Haley Jones and Paige Bueckers both have huge games but cancel each other out with big performances, which player steps up as the difference-maker in Stanford-UConn?
Voepel: Stanford senior Lexie Hull always has had go-to scoring ability, but on a team with so many threats, she can sometimes be more a “cog” than a star. Yet look who has led the way in scoring the past three games on the road to Minneapolis for Stanford: Hull with 36, 19 and 20 points.
The 6-foot-1 guard has averaged 22.0 PPG and 5.3 RPG while shooting 52.4% from the field so far in this NCAA tournament. Hull also can match UConn for playmaking hustle, because she never stops moving and will dive to the floor after a loose ball with the kind of scrappiness that Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer loves.
Philippou: Cameron Brink has become a force this season for the Cardinal, boasting the ability to score in different ways (including increasingly from the 3-point arc), rebound and rim protect. Her third-quarter outburst against Texas (10 points, three rebounds, three blocks, one steal in that frame alone) was terrifying for any future opponent. But she has also been prone to foul trouble, picking up nine across the past two games and sitting much of the first half of the Texas game when the Cardinal really could have used her. Her 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes is in the 11th percentile among Division I women’s basketball players, per Her Hoop Stats.
Stanford has its best chance of winning the longer Brink stays on the floor. And if she does, she’ll have the edge going up against a depleted UConn post corps that’s down to just two bigs following Dorka Juhász season-ending wrist injury.
Barnes: For the Huskies to have a chance against Stanford, the postseason version of Christyn Williams will need to show up in a big way. For all of the focus on Bueckers’ heroics down the stretch in the Elite Eight classic against NC State, Williams also played well, scoring 21 points and snagging five rebounds. But those 21 points were inefficient. Williams shot 9-of-22 from the field and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. Williams’ jumper has been inconsistent throughout her career, but if she’s on against Stanford, look out.
And not to cheat the system by sneaking in an extra point, but after Bueckers’ huge performance, she’s likely to draw more defensive attention. That can create gaps for teammate Azzi Fudd to exploit. Against NC State, Fudd was more active off the dribble than she’s been in past games, and she could do that here too if Stanford’s length disrupts her ability to catch and shoot.
In a battle of elite backcourts, what or who will be the X factor when South Carolina and Louisville meet?
Barnes: South Carolina senior guard Destanni Henderson has the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. If she plays at the level at which she’s shown she’s capable, South Carolina will have a much easier night. Henderson has the ability to score at all three levels. And when she hits outside shots, like she did against Creighton, defenses have a much harder time packing the lane against Boston. But as we saw against Stanford in December, Henderson also can turn up the defensive pressure and create with her quick hands. Henderson’s defense in the third quarter against the Cardinal is an example of how impactful she can be; she turned the tide almost entirely by herself.
Philippou: I’ll go with the other South Carolina guard, Zia Cooke. Is she going to have a North Carolina-esque game (15 points, 3-for-7 from 3), or a Creighton-esque performance (0 points, 0-for-4 shooting from the field)? It’s not just a matter of putting points on the board; in the same vein that Katie described, if Cooke starts hitting outside shots, teams won’t be able to pack the paint as easily and make things tough for Boston.
It bears reminding that Cooke — who has had a pretty inconsistent season — came up huge in last year’s national semifinal loss against eventual champion Stanford with a team-high 25 points on 5-for-8 shooting from 3; she’s done it before, but can she do it again against Louisville’s defense? And even beyond Friday’s game, it’s hard for me to see South Carolina cutting down the nets without Henderson and Cooke having really strong games in the final as well.
Voepel: Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith doesn’t want the Cardinals’ offense to get short-changed by the praise for their defense. She made that clear during the Wichita Regional, including joking — then again, she might have been serious — that the real reason the Cardinals play defense so well is because they can’t wait to get the ball back to score.
Yet Thursday, Van Lith acknowledged that both Louisville and South Carolina were so good defensively that both offenses had to be prepared to grind their gears more than usual.
“Whether the ball goes in on the offensive end for us, we’re going to guard, and we’re going to play defense and we’re going to rebound,” Van Lith said. “It is going to be an elite guard matchup, but I think it’s going to be who’s the mentally toughest to fight through the fact that these are both elite defenses and not get in their feelings about what’s happening on the offensive end.
“For us and our guards, if we shoot great, amazing. But if we don’t, we’re going to go defend and make sure they don’t score, either.”
In other words, no time to fret about shots that don’t go in. Because that will only make two tough defenses tougher.
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Which one-on-one matchup are you most looking forward to seeing in Friday’s semifinals?
Philippou: To follow the line of thinking I introduced above, I’m super intrigued to see how Brink and UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa fare against each other. Nelson-Ododa out-toughed NC State’s Elissa Cunane much of their Elite Eight matchup, though Nelson-Ododa’s foul trouble down the stretch affected her aggressiveness. Nelson-Ododa — and fellow big Aaliyah Edwards for that matter — won’t necessarily put up crazy scoring numbers, but their ability to control the glass is a huge X factor that allowed UConn to make it through the Bridgeport Region.
So who will throw the first punch, so to speak, on Friday and capitalize if/when the opposing center has to sit?
“I think staying out of foul trouble will be key for tomorrow,” Nelson-Ododa said. “That’s something Aaliyah and I have struggled with this tournament. We’re aggressive on the defensive end, but just knowing when to be smart about it is going to be key.”
Barnes: Henderson vs. Van Lith will be a battle between two, hardworking guards who scrap, dive and do whatever it takes to get their team a win. Both guards average a little over three rebounds per game (3.3 for Henderson, 3.4 for Van Lith), despite their relatively small stature (both are 5-foot-7). Van Lith carries a larger scoring burden though, averaging 14.5 points per game compared to Henderson’s 11.1 points. If these two truly match up and go head-to-head, the claw for points and potential defensive impact could be significant. The winner of this battle on both ends of the floor could tip the balance of the game in favor of either team.
Voepel: Twenty-seven years ago here in Minneapolis, UConn met Stanford in the national semifinals. Among the players then were the Huskies’ Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti and Stanford’s Kate Starbird and Kristin Folkl. But VanDerveer and Geno Auriemma are still on opposing sidelines, just as they were in 1995, and that’s a matchup to watch Friday. They are 1-2 on the career victory list among D-I women’s coaches, with VanDerveer leading 1,157-1,148.
There were some hard feelings coming into that game: Auriemma was ticked when he heard VanDerveer’s answer to a question about then-Huskies freshman Nykesha Sales. VanDerveer essentially said she was good but, “We’ve got five Nykesha Sales.” In fact, Stanford did not. UConn poured it on, winning 87-60 on its way to its first NCAA championship.
Then when Lobo made the traveling team that prepared for the 1996 Summer Olympics, she was criticized by USA coach VanDerveer as not being good enough to help the Americans. Auriemma didn’t appreciate that, either.
Still, Auriemma’s and VanDerveer’s relationship has never been as contentious as his dealing with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt once was and with former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw still is. Auriemma did get in a little jab Thursday, talking about how the regular-season series between the programs went away.
“It didn’t get renewed,” he said. “We played at their place, then they were supposed to come back to our place, and something got lost in translation, I guess. We’ve always had great games with them. Some have been close, some have not been close.
“But I think like us, they haven’t changed much over the years. They still play the same style of play. When you watch them, you know exactly what you’re going to get. There’s no surprises when you play Stanford. It’s not like they’re going to come up with a new and different way to play every year. They play hard, they play together, they play positionless most of the time, they shoot the ball great every year. It’s the same Stanford team that I remember 27 years ago playing around here. It’s just different people.”
Which teams win Friday?
Last season, Stanford beat South Carolina in the national semifinals. Are they headed for a rematch in the NCAA title game?
South Carolina vs. Louisville
Barnes: South Carolina
Creme: South Carolina
Philippou: South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina
Stanford vs. UConn