It’s time for the Final Four.
Let’s Get Ready to Rumble
After a month of waiting, it’s finally official: the D1 Basketball Tournament semifinals are upon us. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’re probably familiar with at least one team in the Final Four, be it the Cardinal or, well…the Cardinals. But in order to make sure that you’re all caught up, here’s a recap on the status of each team, from why they’re in the semis to how they can win the coveted Championship.
UConn: The Clutch Masters
How they got here – For once, naysayers and fans can agree on something: without their major seeding and region advantages, the Huskies would’ve had a much harder journey to the semis.
But putting that aside, UConn’s ability to grind out narrow wins has been key to their campaign. Case in point: their victory against NC State. Plenty of teams would’ve crumbled when Jakia Brown-Turner equalized in the first overtime period with seconds to spare. But the Huskies didn’t miss a beat––and didn’t waste their chances to kill the game. Coupled with their close shave against UCF, it seems that UConn has attained a level of clutchness that ought to serve them well in the Final Four.
Who to watch – Paige Bueckers, Beige Pueckers, Bueckers Paige, and the Huskies’ underrated ace in the hole: Buige Paeckers.
In all seriousness, keep an extra eye on Christyn Williams as well; her aggressive style of play will be needed to keep Stanford’s attack in check. And at this rate, it’d be foolish to ignore Azzi Fudd. If she can build off of her sixteen points on Monday, the Cardinal had better watch out.
Keys to winning the Championship – Williams, Fudd, and Bueckers all being on form is the easiest road to success for the Huskies. But on a logistical level, they’ll need to indulge in some R&R. Double overtime games like the one against the Wolfpack are extremely draining, and they’re not exactly used to hours of tournament travel this year. If their battle against the Cardinal drags out, they’ll be absolutely spent come Final time.
Stanford: The Hydra
How they got here – By being Stanford. Duh.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Stanford’s play is their ridiculously balanced offense. The Cardinal had multiple scorers hit double digits in their matches against Montana State, Maryland, and Texas. Even when anomalies like their dance with Kansas occur, they always have at least one player ready to blow up and break 30 à la Lexie Hull. In this sense, they’re a bit like the Hydra of March Madness. Cut off one head, two more shall take its place––and surprise, the two heads are twins!
Who to watch – If you’re interested in end-of-year accolades, pay attention to Wooden Award nominees Haley Jones and Cameron Brink. They’ll need to have big nights in order to give frontrunner Aliyah Boston a run for her money.
Keys to winning the Championship – If they make it past the Huskies, the Cardinal’s biggest challenge will be breaking through a tough-as-nails defense in the final––but whether that defense hails from South Carolina or Kentucky remains to be seen. As mentioned before, Stanford can outscore most teams, even if their attack’s not 100% in sync. But with such elite opposition waiting in Minneapolis, will anything less than 100% be enough?
Louisville: The “Underdogs”
How they got here – Similar to another team in the Final Four (more on them later), the Cardinals have done extremely well on defense…and just enough on offense. The narrative surrounding this team––or rather, the lack thereof––also worked to their advantage. Throughout the tournament, the buzz surrounding the Cardinals was more suited for an underdog rather than a top-seeded squad, leaving them with minimal outside pressure on the way to Minneapolis.
Who to watch – Hailey Van Lith has been on fire, averaging 14.5 PPG and a 43.2% field goal percentage this season. Any hope the Cardinals have to break down South Carolina’s defense rests on her shoulders.
Keys to winning the Championship – Advancing past the Gamecocks means a dance with Stanford or UConn in the final. Either way, their task will be the same: keep flaunting the underdog tags and rely on Van Lith to work her magic offensively. Oh, and uninvite Kianna Smith’s mother from the semifinal, since that clearly worked against Michigan.
South Carolina: The Pragmatists
How they got here – The Gamecocks’ tournament play hasn’t screamed “No. 1 overall seed,” but that probably won’t matter to them at all. What does matter is the state of their defense, which has carried them through this tournament. They held Creighton to a 33% field goal accuracy and managed 31 defensive rebounds on Sunday to book their ticket to the Final Four.
Who to watch – Just like the Cardinals, South Carolina’s lone-wolf attacker will catch eyes on Friday. Aliyah Boston’s praises can’t be sung enough; her consistency in point tallying is the main reason why the Gamecocks can get away with their pragmatism.
Keys to winning the Championship – Here’s our semi-hot take of the day––if South Carolina beats Louisville, the title is as good as theirs. But out of all the teams the Gamecocks could’ve drawn for the semis, Louisville was arguably their worst option. Both teams are absolute walls defensively and relatively quiet offensively. If Boston can get points on the board and steer the team past the Cardinals, they’ll get to face an opponent who can play more into their hands in the final. Sounds like a recipe for success to us.
Now, the stage is set. Hydras versus clutch masters, underdogs versus pragmatists––only two will make it out of the semifinals alive. Which two will it be? Let’s find out together on Final Four Friday.