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Jack Freifelder | NCAA.com | March 30, 2017

Six storylines to follow at the Final Four

  Geno Auriemma won game No. 113 in NCAA tournament play Monday night against Oregon.

DALLAS — It all comes down to this: Four teams will enter and one will emerge victorious.

With the tipoff of the Women’s Final Four just around the corner, it’s time to get ready to crown a champion in the world of DI women’s college basketball. And before fans go anointing UConn with the championship for the fifth straight year in a row, there are some interesting items to keep an eye on heading into the biggest weekend of the college basketball season.

That said, NCAA.com dives a little deeper on some important storylines heading into the weekend’s festivities. Historic winning streaks, high-powered offenses and a slew of coaching juggernauts will be meeting in Dallas to crown a champion.

Hold onto your cowboy hats because this Final Four could be a doozy.

Can anyone stop the Huskies from their fifth straight title?

There’s only one team in this year’s Final Four that has won 111 games in a row — the Connecticut Huskies. The team’s march toward a fifth straight national championship will pick up when the festivities tip off on Friday evening in Dallas, but can any of the other three teams left in the fray make a legitimate claim to the throne?

“There [are] a lot of teams that are really good,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “I bet if you talked to all the coaches at the Final Four this weekend, you might get four completely different ideas about how to run a basketball program and manage a season. They all got there, and they’re all successful.

“I don’t think there’s anything we do that’s exclusive — that’s revolutionary and different,” Auriemma added. “What we do is what works for us … the attention to little things.”

The little things may come in handy for UConn as they’re set to face off with one of the hottest teams in the entire NCAA tournament field — Mississippi State. The Bulldogs come into this matchup fresh off an overtime victory against Baylor.

Mississippi State will try to knock off the Huskies off their perch when the two teams meet in the second semifinal on Friday, but it won’t be easy as UConn will be undefeated entering the Final Four for the third time in the last four years. Although the task at hand may be a tall one, the spotlight will be shining brightly on the team that is the talk of the women’s NCAA tournament — UConn.

Mind you, the last team to beat the Huskies before this historic streak — Stanford — will also be in Dallas this week fresh off a comeback victory over Notre Dame. That win against UConn though came way back in November 2014.

So will Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse etch their names in UConn lore? Will Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier continue to pile up points in bunches? Will Saniya Chong’s senior swan song come in a major moment at the Final Four? All that and more will be answered when the action on the hardwood gets going from American Airlines Arena in downtown Dallas.

“We’ve been fortunate to be in the Final Four,” Auriemma told reporters. “This is our 10th year in a row. It just seems like it gets harder and harder to believe because it is getting harder and harder to accomplish this. The teams that you have to beat year in and year out are getting better and better.

“It doesn’t get any easier from here,” he added.

Will Mississippi State find a way to avenge their fate from last year’s meeting with UConn in the Sweet 16?

This matchup between Mississippi State and UConn has been more than a year in the making. Sure, it’s Mississippi State’s first chance in school history to play in a National Semifinal, while UConn is playing in its 10th consecutive Final Four, but frankly it’s also shot at redemption for those on the Bulldogs roster that remember the 60-point shellacking they received courtesy of UConn (98-38) in last year’s Sweet Sixteen.

  Mississippi State will play in its first Final Four in program history.
Vic Schaefer, Mississippi State’s head coach, told reporters that even though some personnel has changed from a year ago his team’s opponent is still the same “well-oiled machine”.

“They have tremendous chemistry,” Schaefer told reporters in a Tuesday conference call. “Even though the numbers or the names change, the program itself just keeps rolling. … At the same time, we know we can’t really get caught up in the whole UConn thing. We’ve got to do what we do.

“I think one thing we’ve got to do is we got to score,” he added. “We’ve been able to score some points. That’s what’s different about our team right now.”

That said, after Mississippi State’s shootout affair with Baylor in the Elite Eight — a game the Bulldogs won 94-85 in overtime — the topic of the day was the Herculean effort turned in by the Bulldogs’ diminutive guard Morgan William. The 5-foot-5 point guard pumped in a career-high 41 points to help Mississippi State upset the Baylor Bears, scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime combined. 

Junior guard Victoria Vivians (15.5 ppg in the tournament) and sophomore center Teaira McCowan (13.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg in tournament play) have formed a tough triumvirate alongside Morgan William, which is another good sign for a team that’s averaging just a hair under 93 points a game in the NCAA tournament. This team could certainly use some more of that scoring prowess against the Huskies.

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Stanford is entering its 13th Final Four in school history, but will lucky No. 13 give head coach Tara VanDerveer a shot at her third National Title?

It’s been a pretty wild ride so far in the 2016-17 season for Stanford and head coach Tara VanDerveer. Earlier in the year, she became just the third coach in NCAA basketball history to reach the 1,000-win plateau — joining the late Pat Summitt and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

  Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer earned her 1,000th career win earlier this season.
Fast forward and Stanford is now in the Final Four for the 13th time under the helm of the aforementioned VanDerveer. She will be looking for her third national championship, but it’s the school’s first trip to the National Semifinals since 2014, when the Cardinal fell to the eventual champion UConn. This year, Stanford will have three double-digit scorers in tow. And they’ll be looking to give South Carolina all it can handle come tipoff.

Alanna Smith Karlie Samuelson Brittany McPhee (In tournament play)
16 ppg; 8.0 rpg 12.8 ppg, 4.0 apg 19 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.8 apg  

VanDerveer told reporters on Tuesday the team had several goals it set at the beginning of the year. Along the way there have been “boxes we were able to check off,” she added.

“Number one, we have great senior leadership on this team,” VanDerveer said during a Tuesday teleconference. “This team is extremely close. They play hard, with each other. … As the season went on, we just got better. Different people are stepping up for us. That’s why we're in the situation we’re in.

“This is a blue-collar team in the proud tradition of Jim Harbaugh. This is put on your boots, put on your hardhat, bring your lunch bucket. This is that kind of team.”

Which South Carolina team will show up at the Final Four to play Stanford? 

  The Gamecocks are heading back to the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.
The Gamecocks may have weathered the loss of starting center Alaina Coates (12.9 ppg, 10.7 rpg in the regular season), but the team has still managed to play some inspired basketball of late. Leadership roles have changed a bit with the biggest senior contributor (Coates) sidelined due to injury, but things haven’t really missed a beat thanks in large part to the play from a tandem of juniors — guard Kaela Davis and forward A’Ja Wilson.

Davis (19.3 ppg) and Wilson (19.8 ppg) are averaging nearly 40 points a game combined in the tournament, but the real kicker has been the Gamecocks’ shooting percentage as a team. South Carolina has finished well above 50 percent from the field in three of its wins, with two of the team’s wins coming by more than 40 points. 

  Regular season scoring Postseason scoring
Kaela Davis 13.0 19.3
A'Ja Wilson 17.9 19.8

But Stanford’s comeback win against Notre Dame should give South Carolina some pause. The Cardinal overcame a 16-point deficit to oust the Fighting Irish, 76-75. As the Irish learned firsthand, the game is 40 minutes long for a reason. Take that for granted and it could come back to bite you.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who has led the Gamecocks to five straight NCAA trips, told reporters in a Tuesday teleconference call that Stanford’s offense can be “hard to guard”.

“Stanford is very disciplined,” Staley said. “They are a team in which they do a great job of reading defenses and offenses.

“They have a lot of moving parts to what they do,” she added. “Any one person can get hot on their team. … You do have to prep for them top to bottom.”

Could South Carolina becomes just the third school since 1984 to see its men and women’s basketball teams win their respective NCAA tournament titles in the same year?

  The State of South Carolina is in position to win four NCAA championships in less than a year.
After Monday’s win over Florida State, South Carolina became just the 10th school in Division I history to see its men’s and women’s basketball programs make the Final Four in the same year. There have been 13 occasions in which a school has accomplished the feat.

The University of Connecticut has done so four times, winning both championships in 2004 and 2014. If college basketball faithful widened the scope of the lens, there’s another school that has finished the season with its men’s and women’s basketball teams standing alone — the University of Central Missouri. In 1984, the school formerly known as Central Missouri State, saw its two varsity basketball programs cut down the nets in the Division II NCAA tournament. While this may not exactly be unchartered territory in the realm of college sports, it’s certainly an opportunity that few schools can say they’ve had a chance at. Nonetheless, South Carolina will take up the gauntlet come Friday.

Will the Samuelson sisters — Katie Lou, a sophomore at UConn; and Karlie, a senior at Stanford — meet in the NCAA tournament title game?

  UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson and Stanford's Karlie Samuelson will possibly face off in the tournament final.
For those who have watched the Big Dance this year on the women’s side, an all-too-familiar sighting has been a man by the name Jon Samuelson. He’s not just a crazy, hardcore fan of women’s college basketball — he’s actually the father of two players left in this year’s Final Four. And a myriad of reporters have had fun chronicling the constant travel he’s undertaken to see his girls play in the tournament. The Samuelson clan resides in Huntington Beach, Calif., but Jon had to travel between Lexington, Kentucky, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, to see early-round action for Stanford and UConn, respectively.

Having two kids in the Final Four is special enough, but if things fall just the right way the Samuelsons could see Karlie and Katie Lou’s teams squaring off with one another in the NCAA title game.

"I never, never thought about this happening," Jon Samuelson said in a Wednesday interview with Michelle Smith of espnW.com. "I hoped at one point they might play in the regular season. And when the brackets came out, this became a possibility. But it's amazing they have both ended up there. And I'm particularly happy for Karlie, because it's her senior year."

Katie Lou told the Hartford Courant on March 25th that she was hoping UConn would get to play Stanford before her sister graduated.

"A lot would be on the line for both of us, but we're trying not to think that far ahead,” she said. “Until that point, I’m not going to think about it.”

One thing is for sure, dear old dad will finally get some shuteye before his girls take center court.