The NCAA Women’s Final Four is taking place this weekend at Target Center in downtown Minneapolis with four of the best teams in the nation. The #1 ranked team coming into the tournament the South Carolina Gamecocks looked it on the court as they took care of the Louisville Cardinals 72-59 in the first of two semifinals. The second one was also a good one as #2 seed UConn Huskies led by Hopkins native Paige Bueckers upset #1 seed and defending champion Stanford Cardinal 63-58 to advance to their 12th NCAA Championship game.
South Carolina came out with a bang from the opening tip as they used some great shooting and rebounding plus a cold shooting performance early from Louisville to jump out to an 11-2 lead. Louisville would start a slow comeback and cut the Gamecock lead to seven—17-10 at the end of the first quarter.
Whatever illed Louisville early in the game they got figured out in a hurry in the second. After a quick bucket by South Carolina, Louisville would go on a 12-0 run to take the lead at 22-19 lead by Emily Engstler’s six points in the run. it was a game of runs as the Gamecocks then went on a 9-0 run to retake an 8 point lead before the Cardinals once again cut the lead back to just two with 1:43 left in the half. South Carolina would score the last four points of the quarter and take a 34-28 lead into the half.
The third quarter is where the Gamecocks pulled away. Aliyah Boston took control for USC helping stretch the Gamecock as large as 15 points before Louisville cut it back to six late in the quarter. But Boston would not be denied and scored a bucket and added the foul with 4 second left to put the lead back to nine and give Louisville’s Engstler her fourth foul.
The fourth quarter was back and forth until Engstler fouled out with 4:56 to play in the game. The Cardinals just had no consistent threat after that and South Carolina pulled away to comfortably win by 13 points 72-59. Boston named the NCAA PLayer of the Year earlier this week showed it as she nearly went for a 20-20 game scoring 23 points and recording 18 rebounds. The Gamecock’s starting five was all in double figures with Brea Beal next in line with 12 points.
Engstler led the way for Louisville with 18 points and 9 rebounds. Olivia Cochran and Kianna Smith each added 14 in the loss. Hailey Van Kith who had scored 20 or more points in all of the Cardinals NCAA games so far finished with 9 points on just 4-11 shooting.
South Carolina will play for their second NCAA Championship in school history after they won in 2017.
In the second semifinal between UConn and Stanford it was a slow defensive affair to start. At the media timeout midway through the quarter the Huskies had just a 4-2 lead over the Cardinal. The teams would gradually shoot better as the quarter went on, but it was still lackluster with the Huskies shooting just 33% in the quarter and Stanford 25%. Neither team made a three pointer in the opening stanza but behind Paige Bueckers’ and Azzi Fudd’s four points each the Huskies led 12-9 after the opening ten minutes.
The second quarter started much like the first but then the offense finally came. UConn started the game 0-4 from beyond the arc, but Evina Westbrook came alive hitting three in a row to push the UConn lead to six at one point. Stanford continued to pound the ball inside to Cameron Brink who got a pair of Huskies into foul trouble while scoring 8 points. The Cardinal finally hit their first three of the game on a shot by Hannah Jump with about 2 minutes left in the quarter in the midst of a 7-0 run that pushed the Cardinal back into the lead. UConn took back the lead on a late basket by Nika Muhl but she missed her free throw that would have extended the lead to two. Instead the Huskies headed to the locker room with a 27-26 halftime lead. Westbrook lead all scorers with 9 points while Bueckers added 8 for UConn. Stanford was led by Brink with 8 of her own along with 8 from Hailey Jones.
The third quarter was similar to the first. Both teams could not buy a bucket for the first five minutes, and then the game opened up once again. Stanford scored 20 points in the paint in the first half but the Huskies successfully kept them outside the paint for their first 12 shots in the third quarter. Finally Brink made a layup and seemed to get the Cardinal back in the momentum advantage. But back came the Huskies. They scored five points in a row including a big three by Christin Williams and after one last layup by Brink the Huskies had a 39-37 lead after three quarters.
The final 10 minutes would be tense. UConn went up 5 after a three-point play by Olivia Nelson-Ododa at 42-37 just under a minute into the period. After swapping baskets Brink was called for an Illegal screen on Bueckers and then again for a defensive foul on the block giving her four fouls with 7:35 to play. Nelson-Ododa nailed both free throws to give UConn their largest lead of the game at 47-39. The Cardinal defense was intense forcing multiple Huskie turnovers including three by Bueckers in 1:35. But they could not buy a basket on the other end. Bueckers got revenge with a steal and a layup once again putting the Huskies up 8 with 5;39 to play. She sat down on the next whistle and seemed to be favoring her surgically repaired leg that cost her a majority of the season,
A Hannah Jump pull-up cut the lead to five again with 3:35 left in the fourth and Bueckers returned to the game. She definitely was not 100% and after a collision on a jump ball call took some time to get up and get ready for action. Her turn around jumper as the shot clock expired missed but after a great offensive rebound by Aaliyah Edwards she was fouled and hit both free throws to extend the lead to 8 once again. Stanford cut the lead to six on a Jones layup, and then UConn committed their 17th turnover on the game inbounding the ball. Jones then hit a pair of free throws to make it 52-48 with 1:15 to play.
Both teams were in the double bonus after that with the Cardinal fouling immediately to try and extend the game. A pair of Huskie free throws and then a charge on Jones turned all the momentum back the Huskies way. Stanford got a quick steal and a three pointer, but the Huskies would break the Cardinal press of an easy layup and hit nearly all their free throws down the stretch.
Once again the Cardinal did not give up. An Ashton Prechtel three cut the lead back to 4 with 34 seconds left, and then UConn instead of slowing the ball pushed to get what should have been an easy layup but threw it would of bounds for their 19th turnover of the game with 27.1 seconds left. Jones banked in a jumper with 23 seconds left and cut the lead down to two, the lowest it had been since the third quarter. Fudd would be fouled and hit a pair of free throws to push the lead back to four with 22.5 to play. Once again Stanford struck back with a Brink layup with 18.4 left to cut the lead back to two and called timeout to set up their press. Stanford struggled to foul a Husky player after the inbounds and seven precious seconds ticked off the clock. Williams would hit both free throws and again push the lead to four with 11 seconds left. Prechtel missed a desperation three on their possession out of the time out and after one more made free throw by Edwards the game was iced. UConn would win 63-58 and return to the NCAA Championship game once again and guarantee a Cardinal repeat would not be in the cards. The Huskies went 17-19 from the stripe in the fourth quarter to ice the game away.
Stanford shot a miserable 35% for the game including just 4-23 from three and 8-13 from the free throw line. Bueckers would lead the way for the Huskies with 14 points with Westbrook adding 12 more. Stanford was led by Jones who had 20.
UConn will be playing in their 12th championship game on Sunday and are a perfect 11-0 in their previous ones. Their most recent title coming in 2016. Their first title in their incredible run came in 1995—-right here at the Target Center.
It should be a great atmosphere Sunday night with two great teams facing off for a NCAA Championship.