Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Feature: Final Four Preview
The last weekend of a memorable, unusual, historic women’s basketball season has arrived with Friday’s Final Four matchups, featuring a pair of Pac-12 teams vying to reach Sunday’s national championship game.
No. 1 Stanford (29-2) vs. No. 1 South Carolina (26-4)
History: Stanford is 5-1 all time against South Carolina; the Gamecocks won the last meeting between the two teams in the 2017 national semifinals, 62-53.
Connections: South Carolina coach Dawn Staley played for Tara VanDerveer on the 1996 Olympic women’s basketball team.
NCAA 2021 Journey: Stanford defeated 16 Utah Valley State 87-44, 8 Oklahoma State 73-62; 5 Missouri State 89-62 and 2 Louisville 78-63; South Carolina defeated 16 Mercer 79-53, 8 Oregon State 59-42, 5 Georgia Tech 76-65, 6 Texas 62-34.
Starting Lineups: Stanford, Kiana Williams G, Anna Wilson G, Haley Jones G, Lexie Hull G/F, Cameron Brink F/C; South Carolina, G Zia Cooke, C Aliyah Boston, G Destanni Henderson, F Victoria Saxton, G Brea Beal
Key players: Stanford, Kiana Williams (14.5 ppg, 2.6 3pt pg). The senior guard is the Cardinal’s tone-setter; South Carolina, Aliyah Boston (13.8 ppg, 11.4 rpg), perhaps the country’s best interior player, but was just 2 for 11 from the floor against Texas.
X-factors: Stanford, Lexie Hull. The Cardinal junior wing kept them in the game against Louisville with her hustle and her ability to get to the free-throw line. If there’s a big steal or a scramble for the ball in a late-game situation, Hull is going to be in the middle of it. South Carolina, Laeticia Amihere. Amihere, a sophomore forward, has averaged 11 points and eight rebounds in four tournament games, coming into the lineup to replace injured senior Lele Grissett.
The Matchup: This will be a matchup against one of the nation’s best offensive teams in Stanford and its most dangerous defensive teams in the Gamecocks. Stanford has multiple players who can score in bunches, as evidenced by Ashen Prechtel’s star turn in the Elite Eight win over Louisville on Tuesday. And that is going to give South Carolina a lot of defensive work to do. The Gamecocks’ leading scorer is guard Zia Cooke, who will most likely get Anna Wilson as her defender for the night. Stanford wins on the depth scorecard, consistently bringing 11 players into the game during the postseason, but South Carolina held Texas scoreless in the fourth quarter in the regional final, proving that they have the capability of disrupting Stanford’s offensive flow. If the Cardinal start hitting 3-pointers, it could be a long night for the Gamecocks who don’t rely on the 3 in their own offense. The Gamecocks are going to need a big night from Boston and it will be interesting to see how much Stanford’s size and length thwarts her inside.
What Stanford must do to win: Rebound. South Carolina is out-rebounding its opponents by an average of 14.7 per game. The Cardinal will need to crash the glass to both keep the ball at their end of the floor and increase scoring chances, and to get the transition game rolling.
What Stanford cannot afford to do: Play a half like they did against Louisville. That aberration, in which the Cardinal looked stuck in the mud on offense and defense for more than 20 minutes won’t pass muster in a national semifinal game.
No. 3 Arizona (20-5) vs. No. 1 Connecticut (28-1)
History: Connecticut has a 1-0 record against Arizona, winning 74-57 in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
Connections: Former Arizona standout TeeTee Starks is currently serving as a graduate assistant at Connecticut.
NCAA 2021 Journey: Arizona defeated 14 Stony Brook, 79-44, 11 BYU 52-46, 2 Texas A&M 74-59, 4 Indiana 66-53; Connecticut defeated 16 High Point 102-59, 8 Syracuse 83-47, 5 Iowa 92-72, 2 Baylor 69-67.
Starting Lineups: Arizona, G Aari McDonald, F Sam Thomas, F Cate Reese F Trinity Baptiste; Connecticut, G Christyn Williams, G Paige Bueckers, G Evina Westbrook, F Aaliyah Edwards, F Olivia Nelson-Ododa
Key players: Arizona, Aari McDonald (20.3 ppg), coming off back-to-back 30-point games in the NCAA Tournament; Connecticut, Paige Bueckers (19.5 ppg, 6.6. apg), the national player of the year as a freshman.
X-factors: Arizona, Cate Reese. The Wildcat junior forward will hold things down inside, but she also needs to score more than she has been (6.5 points a game in the NCAA Tournament) in order to keep Arizona close in this game. Connecticut, Aaliyah Edwards, who has averaged 14.5 points a game on 77 percent shooting.
The Matchup: It’s going to be the first-timers against the 11-time national champions, and the Wildcats say they are ready to play like they have nothing to lose in a game in which they will be a prohibitive underdog. But Arizona and head coach Adia Barnes have something no one else in the country has and that’s guard Aari McDonald, who has scored in double figures in 91 straight games, has two back-to-back 30-point games heading into this matchup and says she’d be willing to take out her own mother to get to the national championship trophy. The Huskies, meanwhile, have their own star in freshman Paige Bueckers, who was just named the national player of the year. Only two players on the Connecticut roster, guard Christyn Williams and forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa have ever played in the Final Four game - and have never won one - so the experience edge on the floor isn’t quite as wide as it would seem. But Connecticut will be a steep challenge for the Arizona defense, who force a turnover on 22.5 percent of their opponents’ possessions.
What Arizona must do to win: As coach Adia Barnes put it, “play Arizona defense.” Be aggressive, and look to create offense from defense outside of the half court.
What Arizona cannot afford to do: Let Connecticut go on a run. The Huskies put up a 19-0 run on Monday night to doom Baylor and that’s the kind of thing that just can’t happen on Arizona on the big stage Friday night.