INDIANAPOLIS- When Oregon State and UConn tip off in tonight’s semifinal game, it will be a showdown between two teams with two very different backgrounds in the recent past. No matter the outcome, the game itself will showcase remarkable achievements made by each squad.
Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck said that when he arrived in 2011 he inherited a “clean slate,” a polite description for what was a difficult situation. Nine players had left the program and only two remained. Rueck held open callouts, with a soccer player and volleyball player among others joining the team.
“That team alone is a remarkable story,” he said.Five years later, he’s in the Final Four with one of his players, senior Jamie Weisner, named to the WBCA Division I Coaches’ All-America team.
“I’m just so proud of them and happy for them,” he said of his current players.
On the other side is UConn, playing in its ninth straight Final Four appearance. The domination by the UConn women’s basketball teams has led some to question whether the program’s supremacy is good for the sport.
Regarding that argument, “At the end of the day we worked really hard and it’s not up for us to play down,” senior Morgan Tuck said. “It’s for other teams to get better and be more competitive which I think is happening in the women’s game.”
The current UConn team boasts three All-America members, Tuck, Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson. Jefferson is the AAC Defensive Player of the Year and Stewart is the newly crowned Associated Press Player of the Year for the third year in a row.
With the combination of the teams’ experience levels, here are five keys to watch for in today’s semifinal.
While Stewart and Jefferson did not lose a game at UConn all season, they lost to Team Canada last summer while playing for Team USA. Weisner and Ruth Hamblin, originally from Canada, know there is a way to stop the seemingly unstoppable duo. It remains to be seen if they can put that knowledge into action.
That action should include Hamblin more than anyone. As the all-time conference leader for blocked shots, she must stop Tuck and Stewart early and often for Oregon State to stand a chance.
The key could be Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese, the 6-foot-1 junior who had 18 points and six assists in the Elite Eight win over Baylor. While Jefferson is clearly an elite guard, she’s also just 5-foot-7, and Wiese has already been hard to guard this season. Both are very competitive, smart players, so this will be a key matchup that could win or lose the game for either team.
Experience has to play a role at this level. UConn’s seniors have played in and already won three championships in a row. They know the drill, and while Oregon State is a new opponent, the mental focus it takes to win is not. Listening to the team’s press conferences and interviews, none of the UConn players takes the fourth opportunity for granted. Geno Auriemma’s possible legacy as the NCAA coach with the most national championships reinforces his team’s motivation to make history.
While both teams have stout defenses and impressive offenses, UConn holds the edge, knowing exactly how to win and secure history on Sunday.