An exciting, upset-filled women’s basketball season is nearing its end.
The tournament this year has seen a Buffalo team that has brought a new definition to the term cool, toppling top-10 teams and making an Elite Eight run.
It has brought forth a freshman phenom in Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter, who’s shown that she can hang with the veterans, making game-winners and scoring big throughout the tournament. The WBCA Freshman of the Year averaged 31.3 points in the Aggies’ Sweet 16 run, the most by a freshman in tournament history.
But despite those performances, the record books have been cracked open again to record the remaining teams: Mississippi State, Louisville, Notre Dame and UConn — all No. 1 seeds — have made it to Columbus, Ohio, to try and extend their tournament runs and claim a national title. 2018 marks only the fourth time the Women’s Final Four has been comprised of all top-seeded teams; the last time was in 2015.
Here’s a look ahead to Friday’s highly anticipated matchups:
Mississippi State vs. Louisville, March 30, 7 p.m. ESPN2
All hopes for a rematch of last year’s title game were vacated in UConn’s 29-point win over defending champion South Carolina.Although the Gamecocks are out, Mississippi State will still have their hands full with a loaded Louisville squad led by standouts Asia Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen. Just a little over a month ago, Durr was named the ACC Player of the Year and has shown up for the Cardinals in big games including a 47-point performance in a win over Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State. Hines-Allen has proven to be a star in her own right as well, averaging 14.7 points in the regular season and over 15 in the tournament.
This will be the Cardinals’ first Final Four appearance since 2013 and third in program history — all under head coach Jeff Walz. The 2009 and 2013 Final Four teams advanced all the way to the championship game to face — and lose to — the Connecticut Huskies both times. Walz is used to having teams with star power; his 2009 team included standout Angel McCoughtry.Arica Carter has been an X-factor in Louisville’s success this season, humbly but efficiently leading at point guard with the help of solid freshman Dana Evans. The guards have combined for a quarter of Louisville’s assists in the tournament and have been instrumental in setting Hines-Allen, Durr and the rest of the team up for some pretty big shots and plays. The Cardinal’s stars will undoubtedly step up as they attempt to advance to the championship game. They’ll have a good shot with the assistance of their backcourt and adaptability of their post players.
Unlike the other teams in the Final Four, Mississippi State is the only team that has not played its opponent this season but it is also the only team that was in last season’s championship game. The Bulldogs have an all-star cast supporting McCowan returning from last year’s team in Morgan William, who spoiled UConn’s title hopes and a 111-win streak last year with a game-winning shot and Victoria Vivians, who has expanded her play in the post and out, becoming a go-to player for her team after moving to the forward position. All were part of the Bulldogs’ perfect SEC record, running through a tough conference schedule including a win over reigning champion South Carolina in early February.The two teams are pretty evenly matched in play especially defensively, despite the size difference in the post, held down for Mississippi State by Teaira McCowan, the 6-7 center who has been dominating in the paint all season and not much has changed in that aspect in the tournament. Expect McCowan to put on a show in Friday night’s bout, but she’ll have her work cut out for her as Hines-Allen and teammates Sam Fuehring and Kylee Shook, who were able to contain Oregon State’s Marie Gulich in their blowout of the Beavers in the Elite Eight, will take on the task of defending her. A key to the Bulldogs’ success against UConn will be McCowan staying out of foul trouble to remain a challenge for Louisville in the paint on both ends of the floor.
Notre Dame vs. UConn, March 30, 9:30 p.m. ESPN2
UConn returns to its 11th-straight Final Four facing Notre Dame after being knocked out by Mississippi State last year. The Irish are looking for a title after an injury-plagued season during their sixth Final Four in eight seasons under AP Coach of the Year Muffet McGraw.
The Huskies have been adamant about having moved on from the sting of their loss last season, but they will definitely be looking to avoid a repeat of a semifinals downfall against Notre Dame, which has a regular season co-championship shared with Louisville. UConn has a roster full of All-Americans including Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, the latter who is a strong candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year Award.
Williams has been an all-out threat for UConn this season, drawing comparison to former Husky Maya Moore in her style of play. The senior has been a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor this season and in the tournament, averaging 15 points and 5.5 assists per game since the first round, as well as 1.25 blocks and steals for the tournament.
Along with Williams is Samuelson, who is eighth in the country in three-point shooting and leads her team with 17.5 points per game this season. The 6-3 junior has evolved into a star for UConn and has earned a spot on the AP All-American team for the second year in a row. It’s going to take strapping defense from Notre Dame to contain the junior-senior combo, not to mention controlling the post presence of forwards Napheesa Collier and Azura Stevens.
UConn may assert their dominance early but Notre Dame won’t go quietly, as the tough Irish are used to battling for their wins, escaping close ones in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight against Texas A&M and Oregon and battling back to the top of the ACC despite four injured players including guard Lili Thompson early in the season. With all of the injuries, the Irish has turned to junior Arike Ogunbowale for some of the ball-handling responsibilities and has proven her versatility in scoring against the league's toughest defenses.Ogunbowale and guard Marina Mabrey make up the highest-scoring tournament duo in the Final Four at 45 points per game. These two will need to sink some big shots to keep up with UConn’s sharp shooters. Sophomore guard Jackie Young has also made her mark on the tournament this year and will need to have another statement game as she did against Texas A&M and Villanova in the second round to help propel her team to the title game.