UConn is headed to a 13th consecutive Women’s Final Four. Arizona is headed to its first. Half of the 2021 Final Four field of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament is set after both teams won Monday in San Antonio.
The Huskies scored 19 unanswered points to rally from a 10-point deficit and then held off Baylor 69-67, with a controversial non-call on the Lady Bears’ final possession. Arizona beat Indiana 66-53 in the nightcap behind 33 points from star senior guard Aari McDonald.
The national semifinals will be played Friday at the Alamodome. But first, No. 1 overall seed Stanford faces second-seeded Louisville and No. 1 seed South Carolina plays sixth-seeded Texas, the lowest remaining seed in the field, in Tuesday’s Elite Eight games.
We look at what is expected to be a superstar frontcourt matchup, how Baylor might have aided the Longhorns in preparing for the Gamecocks, how Stanford’s depth should challenge Louisville and how freshmen Cameron Brink and Hailey Van Lith could be X factors. And, of course, we can’t stop talking about UConn-Baylor.
DiDi Richards’ injury. UConn’s 19-0 run. A controversial non-call on Baylor’s final possession. How good was Monday’s UConn-Baylor matchup, what stood out and what was the difference?
Creme: The simple answer is this game was as good as basketball gets. From a first quarter that had me out of my seat more than I was in it to a second half that was pure intensity, we were all treated to the game of the year. If ESPN Classic still existed, the game would already be on its third airing.
Richards’ hamstring injury might be the only downside. To have a senior leader, especially one who has been through so much, go down like that is heartbreaking, no matter what your rooting interest. That fact that it seemed to trigger UConn’s game-changing 19-0 run illustrated how important Richards is to this Baylor team and just how evenly matched these teams were.
Credit UConn for seizing an opportunity, but it leaves Baylor wondering what if. Let’s also credit Baylor for not wilting. That Huskies’ run erased a 10-point deficit and gave them a nine-point lead with seven minutes left. The Lady Bears made their comeback in what was a game of runs, giving themselves a chance in the final seconds.
The non-call at the end of the game on DiJonai Carrington’s attempt at a game winner will get plenty of attention over the next few days, but let’s hope it doesn’t diminish what a tremendous game this was. In an extremely physical 40 minutes, Carrington probably was fouled. That impacts the way the game concluded, even if no one can possibly know if it would have changed the outcome.
Aaliyah Edwards gets a huge block on DiJonai Carrington to help UConn seal the win vs. Baylor and advance to the Final Four.
Some people might call that officiating decision the difference. Certainly, Richards’ injury was impactful. But Christyn Williams, despite missing two important free throws that precluded the non-call on Carrington, deserves a mention. She had 14 of her 21 points in the second half. When Paige Bueckers went cold with five straight misses in the fourth quarter, it was Williams scoring nine of UConn’s final 16 points. The Huskies don’t win without her.
Voepel: Carrington was fouled; there’s no doubt about that. But the Lady Bears will also rue the seven free throws they missed, because in a game this close, every point mattered. Baylor went 13-of-20 from the line, and that was costly.
As Charlie said, Baylor’s glue player was Richards — she is a premier defender and the Lady Bears are so used to having her on the court. It was a big void, and the entire game changed when she left.
In the end, coach Kim Mulkey said the final play could have gone to Carrington or NaLyssa Smith, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Carrington, who was the spark plug for Baylor all game, went for the shot. And we know what happened then.
“To have to win this game to go to the Final Four and to have to beat a team like that, you know, that’s clearly seeded way lower than they belong, it just added to the intensity of it and the difficulty of it and everything,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “This was harder than winning some of the national championship games that we’ve won, without question. This game was tougher than a handful of national championship games or any Final Four game that you want to mention.”
How big was Aari McDonald in leading Arizona to win the Mercado Regional?
Creme: While we could pick at the details of UConn-Baylor for a week, Arizona is proving that basketball doesn’t have to be that complicated: Make shots and stop the other team from doing so. That is what got the Wildcats to their first Final Four, with Aari McDonald as the individual embodiment of that simple approach.
For the second game in a row, Arizona’s All-American guard has been blistering from 3-point range and made life miserable for opposing guards on defense. McDonald made 5 of 6 3-pointers and scored 33 on Monday after making 6 of 12 from long range with 31 points against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. This from a player who was a 30% 3-point shooter in the 23 games before the regionals.
Meanwhile, Indiana guards Ali Patberg and Nicole Hillary-Cardano were only a combined 4-of-17 from the field with McDonald harassing them. McDonald, along with her coach, Adia Barnes, had the goal of rebuilding the Arizona program. The Wildcats had six wins the season before McDonald’s arrival. They are now in the Final Four. Mission accomplished.
Aari McDonald pours in a game-high 33 points as Arizona defeats Indiana to advance to the first Women’s Final Four in program history.
Voepel: We’ll discuss the Arizona-UConn Final Four matchup much more, but an initial thought is that the Wildcats go into this game feeling as confident as they have all season. That might seem obvious, since they’re in the Final Four for the first time. But they really look like they’re feeling no pressure and totally belong here.
“My teammates, they’re finally believing, they’re having that confidence,” McDonald said. “I knew they could. They keep stepping up, they keep hitting big shots when we need them. I love that.
“We need this confidence momentum going into UConn. We already know what they’re about: powerhouse, so well-coached, skillful players. But, hey, I’ve got my chances with my teammates. Ride or die.”
How much will the battle inside between 6-foot-5 post players Aliyah Boston, a national player of the year finalist, and Charli Collier, the projected No. 1 WNBA draft pick, decide Tuesday’s South Carolina-Texas regional final (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)?
Creme: This matchup is pivotal, especially for Texas. South Carolina is not as good when Boston isn’t as involved, but the Gamecocks can win without her playing a lead offensive role. The Sweet 16 win over Georgia Tech in which Boston scored nine points is the most recent, but it’s hardly the only example.
But the Longhorns need Collier. They need her to rebound. They need her to protect the rim. Most importantly, they need her to be a true threat to score in the low post. Texas can build an offense around that. If Collier isn’t a presence, it puts too much pressure on guards Celeste Taylor and Joanne Allen-Taylor to create their own shot. That’s asking way too much against South Carolina’s defense. Texas can’t win that way.
That is where Boston might be the biggest key for South Carolina. Even if she doesn’t score a point, her defense against Collier could completely turn the game. Boston might have been the best post defender in the country since the day she arrived in Columbia. She’s physical enough to move Collier away from the basket and tall enough to disrupt any shots Collier gets. Collier doesn’t see that too often. Whichever center wins the individual battle might decide the game.
Voepel: It’s great to see such a marquee matchup with two players we expect will be WNBA stars someday. Both are expected to play pivotal roles for their teams in the Elite Eight. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Boston relishes challenges, particularly against opponents who are the same height.
“Aliyah has to keep doing what she does: Keep Collier in front of her, make her make tough shots over her, sprint the floor, get deep post-ups,” Staley said. “At this stage in the game, you can’t do anything different than what you’ve already done. If Aliyah’s able to just do what she’s done for us all season long, we’ve ended up winning those battles.
“But certainly, she’s got to win that battle against Collier.”
Texas coach Vic Schaefer worked with Collier all season on improving her defense. He knows this is a key test for her, too.
“Those are two of the premier players in the country, regardless of position,” Schaefer said. “I’m glad I’ve got Charli on my team. We’ll give her some good advice on trying to deal with Aliyah, because she’s obviously very special and she’s hard to deal with.”
Texas went 0-3 against Baylor this season — two regular-season meetings and one in the Big 12 tournament. How might those games help prepare the Longhorns to face South Carolina?
Creme: Playing against that length and commitment to defense that characterize both Baylor and South Carolina can’t hurt as a means of preparation for the Longhorns. But NCAA tournament games tend to take on a life of their own. Texas’ win over Maryland was the perfect example of that. The kind of intensity with which Texas played is difficult to duplicate in a regular-season game. The Longhorns won that game because of a great defensive game plan and the kind of energy needed to execute it.
Perhaps Schaefer can steal some things from those games against Baylor for his scouting report: How to defend the post with Baylor’s Queen Egbo as the substitute for Boston, or how to effectively rebound defensively. Those details will be a key to Texas’ chances, and Schaefer is the type of coach who will draw from anything he can to gain an edge.
What will help the Longhorns even more than those three games against Baylor is Schaefer’s experience at Mississippi State in the SEC, playing against South Carolina and Dawn Staley two or three times a season in the previous eight years. He coached against this core group of players twice last season. I imagine that experience will compose as much of the game plan as anything else.
Voepel: Baylor and South Carolina aren’t exact duplicates, but it’s hard to imagine a better opponent for Texas to have played in preparation for the Gamecocks. Coming into the NCAA tournament, Baylor had the fewest made 3-pointers among the top eight seeds, and South Carolina had the second fewest. While the Gamecocks had a somewhat surprising eight treys in their Sweet 16 win over Georgia Tech, South Carolina is known for getting the ball inside to post players and having its guards take it to the rim. Very much like Baylor. The Longhorns’ three losses to Baylor have all come since Feb. 14, so what went wrong and what worked in those games should be pretty fresh in their minds.
“If you play Baylor three times and you don’t learn something, shame on you,” said Schaefer, who pointed specifically to a loss in Waco on Feb. 14. “We didn’t play well that day; we couldn’t score. But I think we walked out of that game knowing we defended a little bit. We held them to 60 — that’s always our number. But that’s where I think our growth really started. And we’ve built off of playing them the next two times.”
Nine Stanford players average double-digit minutes. Six average at least 7.3 PPG. How will Louisville manage that depth on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App)?
Voepel: It’s not going to be easy; Stanford doesn’t just have depth — it is high-quality depth and it wore down everyone in the Pac-12. The Cardinal can come at you like a swarm of hornets: a Haley Jones jump shot here, a Kiana Williams or Hannah Jump 3-pointer there, a Fran Belibi breakaway layup, a Cameron Brink deep-seal post move, a Lexie Hull drive to the rim — we could keep going, but you get the idea.
Probably nobody enjoys scheming defensively more than Louisville’s Jeff Walz, the architect of the famed takedown of No. 1 seed and defending champ Baylor in the 2013 NCAA tournament. So he will be up for the challenge with a game plan, but executing against this much Stanford talent is a big task for Louisville.
Creme: Mechelle hit on it. This isn’t about depth as it relates to numbers. Stanford is about the versatility and different styles it can play because of its depth. Most coaches shorten their bench at this point in the season anyway. So the question becomes how Louisville defends the permutations of lineups that Tara VanDerveer has at her disposal.
How will Louisville deal with the length and athleticism of 6-4 Brink and 6-1 Belibi on the floor together? Lexie Hull, with her deep shooting range, could play the 2-guard in one version of the Cardinal lineup and power forward in another. Haley Jones’ ability to play four positions creates an entirely new set of possibilities.
Walz is great at defensive strategizing. But it’s one thing to have a scouting report. It’s another to need one thicker than the unabridged version of “War and Peace.” Stanford doesn’t allow for just a Plan A and Plan B. Walz might have to go much deeper into the alphabet.
So much attention has focused on freshman guards this season. What impact will Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith have Tuesday? And how important is freshman forward Cameron Brink to Stanford’s championship hopes?
Voepel: Coach Tara VanDerveer said she thinks it’s a little tougher for freshman guards to play a big role because of all they have to learn at that position. But the physical play — and how to handle it without getting into foul trouble — is usually a challenge for rookie post players. That has been the case with the very talented Brink. When she’s on the floor, she’s getting things done for Stanford, averaging 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds. Foul trouble has been the problem.
“I think for Cam, the biggest adjustment is how physical the game is inside, and how aggressive the junior and senior post players are,” VanDerveer said. “I think she’s doing extremely well. For Cam, it’s just a matter of staying in the game. She’s a very intelligent player, she passes the ball well, she’s very versatile.”
Van Lith is a gritty 5-7 guard who does the dirty work, and Walz loves that. She rebounds very well for her size, and the Cardinals are going to need all the help they can get on the boards against a bigger Stanford team.
Creme: Another underrated aspect of Stanford’s depth is its ability to mix and match defensive matchups. That means it won’t be up to just one Cardinal defender to handle Dana Evans, making her job of scorer that much more difficult. That means Van Lith will need to have some impact if Louisville hopes to win.
The Cardinals got away with Evans being their only significant scorer against Oregon. They will need more than that on Tuesday. Van Lith is capable of being a bigger contributor than the eight points she produced against the Ducks. Another freshman, forward Olivia Cochran, will also play an important role inside for Louisville. If she can provide physical play against the likes of Brink and score some as well, the Cardinals’ chances go up exponentially.
Brink can do so many things, from posting up to serving as the high-post outlet at the center of the offense. If she hits her season averages, that’s enough for Stanford. But Cochran is the kind of player who could cause the foul trouble that Mechelle mentioned and disrupt those numbers. As deep as Stanford is, Brink on the bench alters the Cardinal approach and puts a little more pressure on players such as Jones, Hull and Williams to score.