Women's college basketball: Three storylines to follow in the women's national championship game
DALLAS — It all comes down to this: Four teams entered and one will emerge victorious.
With the tipoff of the women’s national championship game just around the corner, it’s time to get ready to crown a champion in the world of DI women’s college basketball. Some might be a bit surprised to see South Carolina and Mississippi State squaring off in an All-SEC championship game, but the third meeting between the two schools this season should make for plenty of fireworks (South Carolina won both matchups during the regular season).
That said, there are some intriguing items to keep an eye on heading into the biggest game of the college basketball season.
High-powered offenses will go against stingy defenses, a pair of familiar coaching foes will meet again, and fans will be treated to it all as these two teams battle in Dallas to crown a champion.
Hold onto your cowboy hats because this national title game could be a doozy.
All eyes will be on the guard battle between Morgan William and Bianca Cuevas-Moore.
After Morgan William’s heroics lifted the Bulldogs past UConn on Friday, it’ll be hard for fans to keep their eyes off the point guard matchup in the women’s title game on Sunday. The defensive assignment will likely fall to South Carolina’s Bianca Cuevas-Moore, which means these two diminutive dynamos will be squaring off come tip at the American Airlines Center.
William (5-foot-5) may have grabbed the headlines of late with her recent penchant for flexing her scoring muscles (averaging 27 points over last two ballgames), but Cuevas-Moore (5-foot-6) has shown a knack for disrupting passing lanes on defense throughout the tournament as she’s averaged nearly three steals a game.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told reporters during a Saturday press conference that her team held a film session where she had a brief chance to discuss the matchup with her floor general. The key for Cuevas-Moore on the defensive end will be limiting the number of clean looks William gets in the flow of the offense.
“As far as the matchup with Morgan William: Bianca knows what she has to do,” Staley said. “She has to really stay engaged and make it difficult. Morgan William is going to make shots, she's going to make plays. But if she's in a groove and she's playing as she's played over the past five games, it's going to be a long night for us.”
Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer echoed Staley’s sentiments, adding that William is playing with “a lot of confidence”.
“Well, I think [Morgan’s] just got to continue to make good decisions,” Schaefer told reporters on Saturday. “I don’t think I need to talk to her about what not to do. She’s got a good feel for that and she understands her role — the leadership, the responsibility, etc. Again, the kid’s playing with confidence. She wants to be in that moment.”
If Cuevas-Moore could improve on some unsteady shooting from long distance in the NCAA tournament (4-of-14; 28.6 percent) she might be able to offset some of the scoring from her counterpart. More importantly, making William work on the defensive end might impact the Bulldogs flow offensively.
Nonetheless, the performance from these two juniors could go a long way in determining the outcome on Sunday.
Two SEC teams that have good familiarity with one another are both in unchartered territory vying for their first national championship.
Regardless of how things shake out on Sunday, the team that emerges victorious will capture its first National Championship. That holds a lot of weight in a sport where UConn has stood tall all alone at the end of each of the past four seasons, not to mention winning 10 of 17 titles since the year 2000.
And having two schools from the SEC in the title game gives things a little extra verve, Staley told reporters.
“It's good for the game to shake it up a little bit,” Staley said. “Knowing that it's not the same old, same old, it's great to know that somebody else is going to win a national championship. It's different, and there's a nice little flavor to it. It feels great. This is what we've worked so hard for. This is what we envisioned for our program.
“We're raising eyebrows,” she added. “The SEC gives us an incredible platform from a television standpoint. Our institutions are so supportive. We want all of our sports to be successful. They give us a platform to do that. The rest of the country is probably a little surprised by what's taken place. We're not surprised by us being here.”
Schaefer said his Mississippi State team has tried to keep themselves grounded and focused on the prize ahead despite playing in their first Final Four in school history.
“That's the way they've approached it all year long,” Schaefer said. “They have a real good understanding of there's another one down the line that's even bigger. It's hard to say that knowing that you just beat Connecticut, and their streak. But there is another game that's bigger, one that gives you a chance to win a national championship. We talked about it when we started this back in September. … Now we've got a chance at the national championship.
“Personally I'd rather be playing somebody else, to be honest,” Schaefer added. “They know us better than anybody. Obviously we feel like we know them. But I'm really proud that we have two Southeastern Conference schools in the championship of our sport. That's really special."
Balanced scoring will be key for both teams.
Despite the fact that the both South Carolina and Mississippi State were held to less than 70 points in their semifinal matchups — the first time either team scored less than 70 points in five NCAA tournament games — a staple for each team remains in the form of balanced scoring.
With the absence of senior center Alaina Coates, a trio of juniors (A’ja Wilson, Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray) have all stepped up to help shoulder the load for the Gamecocks. Gray (18 points) and Wilson (13 points, 19 boards) led the way in the defeat of Stanford in Friday’s first semifinal, and have managed to tally double figures in each of the team’s first five postseason games.
Staley said her team felt good about the way it matched up with Mississippi State, but said that the potential for hiccups — like foul trouble — could always crop up.
“If A'ja Wilson gets herself in a little foul trouble, that hurts,” Staley said. “But we've been there before, just not against a team as big as Mississippi State. We've got to find a way to keep A'ja on the floor. Everybody else I think puts us in a position, you know, to match up fairly well.
"Allisha Gray has probably been the most consistent of all of our players,” she said. “We call her the silent assassin. She doesn't say much. She lets her play speak for itself. She's been doing that time and time again. She's never complained about what she gives up on the defensive end as far as having to play much taller, stronger post players. She just does it and goes about her job in a way that would make any coach proud.”
Seems that scoring tends to come from a variety of sources for both teams in this year's tournament final. Case in point: The Gamecocks have had at least three players scoring in double-digits of every NCAA tournament game. Ditto for Mississippi State, which has had as many as six players reach double figures in a single tournament game.
Mississippi State had four players score in double figures against UConn, with junior Victoria Vivians leading the way for the Bulldogs with 19 points. Vivians, much like South Carolina’s tandem of Gray and Wilson, has also scored in double figures in each NCAA Tournament game so far.
Schaefer, the Bulldogs head coach, said the biggest issue he sees heading into Sunday’s title game is the energy and aggression that South Carolina exhibits on the offensive end and on the backboards.
After South Carolina's A'ja Wilson pulled down 19 rebounds in the first National Semifinal against Stanford on Friday, Mississippi State's coaching staff made sure to take notice. Sure the Bulldogs have already seen Wilson up close twice this season, but something about the junior forward is clicking in the NCAA tournament.
"[A’ja] is very active, she’s physical and she’s not going to stop working," Schaefer said. "She’s got a skill set to go with it. She wants to be in the moment. She wants the big shot. They play the way we like to play and they're playing a lineup right now that's really fast and aggressive.
"They've got three or four kids now, when the ball goes up, if you don't find 'em and put a butt in the gut, they're going to go right by you and stick it in — they're going to get the rebound and get the put-back," Schaefer said. "So we understand and respect South Carolina so much. [Fans are] going to see two teams that are extremely tough, physical and aggressive. They're going to represent not only our conference but our game in such a positive manner. It should be a great game and fun to watch. Both of us play an exciting brand."