Championship Weekend: The Final Four
A team-by-team preview of the 2021 Final Four.
By Alex Holmes
One year ago, the cancellation of the NCAA tournament left many wondering what college basketball would look like for the 2020-2021 season. When the season began in late November, the Final Four wasn’t a guarantee amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. Teams across the country endured rigorous COVID testing, postponements, pauses, and cancellations to keep their seasons alive. Now, the NCAA and basketball fans can finally breathe—we will see a champion crowned for the first time since 2019.
The four teams vying for the 2021 national title are No. 1 seeds Stanford, UConn, and South Carolina, and No. 3 seed Arizona. The Cardinal are making their fourteenth appearance in the Final Four and are seeking the program’s first national championship. This will be Connecticut’s twenty-first appearance in the final weekend, and their thirteenth straight trip to the Final Four. South Carolina has become a favorite to make it to championship weekend, as this marks their third Final Four in the last six years (2015, 2017, 2021). Arizona is the Cinderella of the four. The Wildcats have already had a historic season, which will be capped off by the program’s first Final Four appearance.
Here is a team-by-team preview for this year’s Final Four.
NO. 1 STANFORD
The Cardinal came into the tournament as the top overall seed and the favorite to win the title. Expectations were extremely high for Tara VanDerveer’s squad when the tournament began and they are two victories away from winning the program’s first championship.
The Cardinal own a 29–2 record and are riding an 18-game win streak heading into Friday’s semifinal against South Carolina. Balance and versatility have been the trademarks for the Cardinal this season. Guards Kiana Williams (14.5 points per game) and Haley Jones (12.7 points per game) are two of four players who average double figure scoring. Jones, a sophomore, also leads the team in rebounds (7.5 per game). The Cardinal arguably have the most depth of the four teams in San Antonio, with junior Lexie Hull and underclassmen Cameron Brink, Fran Belibi, and Ashten Prechtel giving VanDerveer plenty of options on any given night.
Despite a first half scare from Louisville in the Elite Eight, the Cardinal dominated the Alamo region. Wins over No. 16 Utah Valley, No. 8 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Missouri State, and No. 2 Louisville landed the Cardinal in their first national semifinal since 2017. The team has made 50 three-pointers in four games and has had a different leading scorer in each contest.
Player to Watch: Kiana Williams, Sr., G
Williams is the team’s top scorer, emotional heartbeat, and senior leader. The AP All-America Second Team selection hopes to finish her college career in storybook fashion—winning a national championship in her hometown of San Antonio.
X-Factor: Lexie Hull, Jr., G
Hull averages 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Throughout the season, she has established herself as reliable. She led the team in scoring against Louisville and her point production and stingy defense will be crucial if Stanford wants to take the title home to Palo Alto.
NO. 1 SOUTH CAROLINA
Other than Sabrina Ionescu’s Oregon team, no team was more disappointed than South Carolina when the NCAA cancelled the 2020 tournament. The Gamecocks, who ended 2020 as the AP No. 1 team, came into the season as the favorite to win the national championship. After a few stumbles against top-15 opponents late in the SEC regular season, the Gamecocks began to peak at the right time. An SEC tournament title and dominant wins en route to the Final Four make Staley’s squad hard to bet against in their game against Stanford.
Sophomores Zia Cooke (15.6 points per game) and Aliyah Boston (13.8 points per game) lead the team in scoring. Rebounding will be one of the keys to success against Stanford. Boston’s 11.4 rebounds per game is the best on the team. Victaria Saxton, Laeticia Amihere, and Bria Beal all average more than five boards per game and will give the Cardinal a tough battle on the glass.
South Carolina advanced to the Final Four with little drama. After wins against No. 16 Mercer, and No. 8 Oregon State, the Gamecocks’ 11-point win against No. 5 Georgia Tech was the closest a team has come to knocking off South Carolina. A stifling defense—which held No. 6 Texas to zero points in the fourth quarter—carried South Carolina all season long and will be the deciding factor for the program’s second national championship.
Player to Watch: Aliyah Boston, So., C
Boston is an AP All-America First Team selection and averages a double-double. Staley’s offense runs through Boston and the team’s defense is centered on her powerful presence in the paint.
X-Factor: Laeticia Amihere, So., F
Amihere is one of South Carolina’s most athletic players. She has significantly increased her production during the NCAA tournament, averaging a steady 11 points and 8 rebounds. At six-foot-four, her length and defense will help against Stanford’s tall line-up.
NO. 1 CONNECTICUT
The Huskies are back in familiar territory at the Final Four. UConn is 28–1 on the season, which includes an overtime victory against fellow Final Four participant South Carolina. Freshman sensation and AP Player of the Year, Paige Bueckers (20.1 points per game) and junior Christyn Williams (16.1 points per game) have guided the Huskies to their thirteenth straight Final Four.
Bueckers led the team in scoring in three out of the four games in the River Walk region. The Huskies cruised to victory over No. 16 High Point, No. 8 Syracuse, and No. 5 Iowa. They won by an average of 33 points before winning a thriller against No. 2 Baylor in the Elite Eight.
Player to Watch: Paige Bueckers, Fr., G
Bueckers is in a class of her own—literally. She is the only freshman in the history of women’s college basketball to win National Player of the Year honors. In her first NCAA tournament, she has looked like anything but a rookie and it’s hard to believe the Final Four stage will faze her.
X-Factor: Christyn Williams, Jr., G
Williams carried UConn when Bueckers hit a rare and brief cold spell against Baylor. Playing in her second Final Four, Williams and fellow junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa are the veterans on this year’s Huskies team. Williams is a slasher, drives to the paint, and can hit the three. All three of those assets will be on display against Arizona.
NO. 3 ARIZONA
As a No. 3 seed, the Arizona Wildcats are the lowest seed to reach the Final Four since Kelsey Plum’s 2016 Washington team did so as a seven seed. This season will go down as the best in program history, having finished second in the PAC12 regular season and now making their first Final Four appearance.
All-American Aari McDonald is hands-down the team’s best player. She averages 20.3 points per game and has kicked it up several notches in the NCAA tournament. Cate Reese (11.2 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game) and Trinity Baptiste (8.7 points per game, 6.2 rebounds) have played their parts well as consistent, compliment players to McDonald.
The Wildcats eased by No. 14 Stony Brook in the tournament’s first round, which was followed by a gutsy win over upset-minded BYU. McDonald’s 31 points powered the Wildcats past Texas A&M and her 33 points against Indiana secured Arizona’s debut spot in the Final Four.
Player to Watch: Aari McDonald, Sr. G
McDonald, an All-American and PAC12 Player of the Year, has become the darling of the NCAA tournament. She is averaging 25 points per game in the tournament and UConn’s defense will almost completely focus on stopping the explosive senior guard.
X-Factors: Cate Reese, Jr., F. and Trinity Baptiste, Sr., F.
Both Reese and Baptiste stand over six-feet tall and can knock down the three. Aside from the game against Stony Brook, the Wildcats have only had one other player besides McDonald to score in double figures. If Arizona has a shot at taking down UConn, Reese and Baptiste will need to play the best games of their careers.
This year’s Final Four will see a clash of perennial powers and a program in championship weekend for the first time in its history. The wait to crown a new college basketball champion is finally over.
The Final Four begins this Friday at 6 P.M. ET as the top overall seed Stanford takes on No. 1 seed South Carolina. The second national semifinal between No. 1 UConn and No. 3 Arizona is slated for 9:30 P.M. ET. Both matchups will air live on ESPN.