Can anyone stop the UConn run? Sure, if it can do everything better than the Huskies, which has yet to be done by all who tried, yet Mississippi State might have the weapons to pull off the upset
That's game two of the Final Four in Dallas Friday, in game one it's Stanford going against South Carolina
By ARNIE LESHIN
While the NCAA has already awarded next year's women's regionals to Albany Kansas City, Spokane and Lexington, it is no doubt concerned about plenty of empty seats at this year's regionals.
To fix this is only talk, for there is no change for the format in sight. Only the University of Connecticut got to host the first two rounds at Storrs, and the quarterfinals at nearby Bridgeport. No surprise, they were both sell outs.
Elsewhere, it wasn't so. In Oklahoma City, it was an attractive match-up as Baylor played Mississippi State, but only 3,128 attended the game. In Lexington, Ky., it was even worse, with just 2,527 coming to see Stanford play Notre Dame. In Stockton, Calif., the final paired South Carolina and Florida State and drew only 3,134.
Six ranked schools with loyal fans not willing to travel to these sites.
But have no fear, for the Final Four this weekend at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas has no such problem except for those without tickets. If they were scalping tics in Bridgeport, they are doing the same here. It's virtually a sell out.
So putting the matter of lack of attendance in the earlier rounds aside, let's get to the matter at hand … UConn, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Stanford. The Gamecocks (31-4) and Cardinal (31-5) meet in Friday's opener, the undefeated, top ranked Huskies (36-0) face the Bulldogs (33-4) in the closer.
UConn has just been rolling along. Rather unexpected, it has increased its winning streak to 111 games, has won the last four NCAA titles, and has a record 11 in all. In last year's quarterfinals, it dominated Mississippi State, 98-38 behind an opening run of 13-0 and a 32-4 lead at halftime.
Who can halt this run? Well, anyone of the other three schools. But when you consider that these Huskies have already rolled past the likes of ranked schools FSU, Baylor, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas, Maryland, South Carolina and Kansas State, it will take a lot to do so.
And the Bulldogs might just have the answer. Head coach Vic Schaefer has a 6-foot-7 weapon in Tearia McGowen, another in 6-5 Allisha Okorie, a trio of players 6-feet or taller, a 6-1 outside shooter in Victoria Vivens, and a 5-5 sparkplug in guard Morgan William.
William could be the key. After scoring a total of 11 points in the first three tournament games, she lit up the scoreboard with 41 tossed in against Baylor. She handed out seven assists, she did not have a single turnover.
If she can do the same against UConn, control the tempo, score, play scrappy defense, and supply the leadership, Mississippi State has a chance. It would increase if it can get the Huskies into foul trouble as Auriemma lacks depth. More so, if it can outscore his team, and that's the greatest obstacle.
But the problem everyone else has had versus a team that wasn't supposed to maintain the winning streak, wasn't even supposed to be ranked No. 1, and wasn't supposed to again be the heavy favorite to win yet another title, is finding a way to outplay the Huskies for the entire game.
Even Auriemma has been surprised after his three All-Americas who were the first three picks in the college draft -- Brianna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck – were gone and in stepped another traffic trio in the 6-2 sophomore Napheesa Collier, 5-11 junior Gabby Williams, and 6-3 sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson.
Balancing out the starting lineup are 6-foot junior guard Kia Nurse and 5-8 guard Saniya Chong, the lone senior. Off the bench, Auriemma calls on 5-5 freshman guard Crystal Dangerfield and 6-5 junior post Natalie Butler. That's his main seven.
Except that he's been in this situation before. Last year, Samuelson broke a bone in her foot in the national semifinals against Baylor, so he went eight deep. The year before, Tuck was sidelined with a knee injury, and he went seven deep.
His teams are trained to play the same way each game. They orchestrate like no one else, moving the ball around before a player is open to toss in a perimeter or a 3, or break for the basket, take a pass, and score. They just know how to execute, how to put together long runs by doing this and forcing turnovers.
Every player can score, whether from outside or from inside. Share the ball, get quality shots, play that sticky defense, that's their style and it certainly works. They execute at the highest of levels.
Collier is a small-size post, Williams is a small-size forward, Samuelson can take it to the basket or shoot the 3. Collier and Williams are stronger off the glass, quick and tough to defend against. Nurse has been red-hot, making good on 20 of 26 3s in the tournament, and is probably the best defender, and Chung has the experience to hit from outside and apply her defensive skills.
Dangerfield has been a pleasant surprise as a point guard. She has put in long-range shots, is quick in taking the ball to the basket, and is very skilled at handing out assists. Now she just might to face off against Mississippi State's William, who she can see eye-to-eye and who will go against someone her own size for the first time.
There's a lot to overcome for the vastly improved Bulldogs, but they must not let UConn get on run after run, not allow it to disrupt their own offense, not get boxed out inside, and must do most everything right to pull off this upset.
Then there's South Carolina versus Stanford. When Cardinal head coach Tara Vandeveer was, like Auriemma, first putting together a strong program, the Gamecocks' Dawn Staley played for Virginia and was one of the best players in the country.
This shapes up as a real good match-up. Stanford came from 16 down against Notre Dame to win by one, and South Carolina pulled out a 3-point win over FSU, both games in the regional finals.
The Cardinal has an experienced group, no All-Americas but some size with 6-3 Erica Mager, 6-3 Alanna Smith, and 6-3 Kaylee Johnson. It has a slick guard in Brittany McPhee, who can take it to the hoop, and Katie Lou's sister, Karlie, a senior, is one of the best 3-point shooters in the land, shooting a No. 1 49 percent from there.
The Gamecocks lost their post player, 6-7 Alaina Coates, to an ankle injury, but still have the 6-5 A'Ja Wilson to put in points and bring down rebounds. They have a solid backcourt leader in Briana Roberson, plus a do-it-all forward in 6-2 Kaela Davis.
But they can't match Stanford in 3s. Led by Samuelson, the Cardinal has made 115 more 3s than South Carolina. It also has the experience, but the Gamecocks are probably more athletic.
A toss-up? Why not.
To watch the Final Four, it's on ESPN2 for the semis, and on ESPN for the finals. Check for the times in your area.