Stanford in A Semi-Final. Two teams widely and often regarded as offensive “machines” faced each other in a Final Four semi-final Friday night at Target Center. It turned out that each side employed a stifling one-on-one defense — never a zone — in a low scoring affair decided with free throws and rebounds in the tense closing minutes of the 4th Quarter. UConn hung on to post out a 63-58 victory over Stanford, but even though it led the defending National Champions by 8 with under 6 minutes remaining, it needed the fullest depth of talent and coaching to secure its passage to Sunday’s Title Game. The usual hot shooting and high scoring Cardinal were this night held to 23 of 66 attempts from the floor (35%), and neither team could reach 30 First Half points, UConn holding a 27-26 margin heading into the intermission.
Puzzling Tactics. Stanford is coached by 37 year veteran at the helm Tara van Derveer, who in fact has collected more career wins than Geno Auriemma. She has also adorned Stanford’s trophy case with three National Titles, as mentioned above including one from a year ago. So it is with a certain reluctance that this writer ventures any criticism or embarks on a fault search, but in this game Cardinal tactics did seem puzzling. Its talented roster includes 6’4” Cameron Brink, who in 27 minutes compiled a line in harmony with her regular season. She went 6 of 14 from the field, 3 of 4 from the line, while pulling down 7 boards. For much of the game it seemed as though she could score at will when the ball was passed her way down low, especially true when her UConn counterpart at power forward and usual defender Olivia Nelson-Ododa was whistled with her fourth personal foul when plenty of minutes remained on the clock. Yet Stanford persisted throughout with what did not work throughout — long range shooting. Late in the fourth quarter it was 2 of 18 (!) from beyond the arc, finishing 4 out of 23 for the night. It seems as though a 2 for 18 spigot should have been turned off sooner rather than later.
Homecoming. Without question the return Paige Beuckers to the UConn lineup has been a transforming experience for her and the team. Born and raised in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area — where she first engaged a basketball — Target Arena is something of a homecoming for her. Strengthened and improved with each game, she contributes what all the greats in this intensely team game have always done before her, namely the elevation of the play of her teammates. While statistically she did not put up results comparable to recent games, against Stanford she flashed moments of brilliance in ball handling, shooting and overall court presence. While hounded by tough minded Stanford defenders Beuckers went 7 of 13 in field goals, pulled down 4 rebounds and dished out 5 assists. Taking a 4th Quarter fall she made her way to the bench with a slight limp, but it was not to the knee which put her under a surgeon’s blade in December, and all indications are that she will 100% ready to go in the Title Game.
A Clean Dozen? UConn’s coaching tandem of Dailey and Auriemma was unbeaten in NCAA Championship Games. It brought its 30-5 Season slate and remarkable 11-0 Title Game record to this year’s climax in search of a “Clean” Dozen, facing what was likely to be its stiffest challenge at Center Stage. The overall tournament #1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks fully lived up to their billing and 34-2 record by at times making it look easy against a genuinely rugged Louisville Cardinals outfit in the other semi-final, pulling away with a 13 point victory. Early in the current Season they demolished UConn by 16 points, and it comes as a mild surprise that oddsmakers installed them as a mere 4 point favorite. They were guided by Head Coach Dawn Staley, 5 time WNBA All-Star and 4 time Olympic Gold medalist (one as a coach). Her fourteen years in charge of the Gamecocks has delivered four Final Four appearances, including 2017 National Title honors. On the floor it was led by 6’5” power forward All-American and AP Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. She rated to give UConn defenders their toughest challenge of this Season. Respected National commentator Debbie Antonelli in her pre-game analysis accorded the “bigger and stronger” Gamecock unit a decided edge.
The Game. The Gamecocks displayed their skill set repertoire — inside scoring, accurate passing, bounding and a stifling defense — early in powering their way to a 13-2 lead mid-way through the First Quarter. Thereafter the issue was not seriously in doubt, and even though UConn clawed back to within 7 a few times in the middle quarters, in the end it was South Carolina hoisting the trophy earned by its 64-49 triumph. The winners received the game expected from Boston — 35 minutes, 11 points and a game leading 16 rebounds. They were led in scoring by Senior Guard Destanni Henderson’s game high 26 point effort, accompanied by her dish of 4 assists. Although Paige Bueckers managed to lead Husky scoring with 14 points and 6 rebounds, she was relentlessly hounded throughout her 39 minutes, every opportunity seeming to present itself only with acute difficulty. To her and all teammates credit, UConn never gave up, giving its all throughout the entire 60 minutes.
Neither side shot especially well from the floor, but Carolina hit on 17 of 26 free throws (65.4%), and despite the Gamecocks hustling in-the-face defense the Huskies were limited to 4 attempts from the stripe, connecting on only one. A measure of Carolina’s inside strength was its gaping 49-24 rebounding advantage, 21 of which were pulled down in the offensive end (a mere 6 for UConn). The Huskies were tagged with 21 personals, Carolina drawing only 11 whistles.
Immediately prior to the opening bell of a prize fight a referee will say to each combatant “May the Better Man Win”. Last night at Target Center in Minneapolis the better team won. UConn closes the books on the Season at 30-6; the Gamecocks at 35-2 hold their deserving spot as the Nation’s best.