By: Jeffrey Newholm
Sister Jean has become quite the meme in men’s basketball. Fans love to hear about the figurehead of the underdog that made the Final Four against all odds. But there’s no cute and cuddly teddy-bear story in the women’s tournament this year. For the third time in the last seven years, it turns out the underdog didn’t have a prayer. All four one seeds will tip off this weekend in Columbus. Resurgent Louisville takes on last year’s bracket buster, Mississippi State, and then undefeated UConn faces its biggest rival, Notre Dame. I’ll take a look at each team, the top player to watch, and give my personal fan’s take. And all women’s fans will have their supplications answered by Saturday: will we have a Husky-Bulldog rematch in the final?
On the same day the school’s men’s team won a game despite a gruesome injury, the women’s team caused a nasty spill of its own. Instead of bodily harm, it was a bruise to the game’s image and structure of power when the Cardinals nicked Brittney Griner and Baylor. That 2013 postseason, Louisville kept winning until a humbling 93-60 beatdown by UConn. The team had a few near misses in the playoffs afterwards until breaking through at 32-2 this year. The team wasn’t remotely challenged in the Regionals and advances to its third Final Four–with a familiar foil waiting on the other side of the bracket.
Best Player: Asia Durr
Durr is the team’s first All-American since 2014. The Junior quietly leads the team in scoring with 18 points a game. Just like her predecessor Angel McCoughtry, Durr doesn’t outshine the other big names.(Except against Ohio State, when she broke the school record with 47 points). She instead epitomizes the Cardinals program: chipping away against the stone until the cornerstone is created. After she won ACC player of the year, she gave fans a glimpse into the world of the best players: “just to see your hard work paying off – you’re up at five in the morning, six in the morning training – you don’t train for those things, but you train to be the best”. And for the first time in school history, Louisville could soon be the best team in America.
Too often in the men’s tournament, fans go wild over the biggest upset ever. Not even two years later, the winning team is in an even worse situation. Worse than awaiting one shining moment, as Lehigh and Norfolk State have found, is to have it relegated to a Wikipedia curiosity. Thankfully Louisville was able to avoid this fate. While the seeds didn’t bloom for a while, the promise planted with the Baylor upset have blossomed into one of the top teams in the country. This year, the Cardinals won’t be too disappointed to make it and lose. Pretty soon, however, the Final Four won’t be a bonus; it’ll be an expectation.
Fans disappointed by the lame ending to Monty Python and the Holy Grail can surely sympathize with the Bulldogs’ plight last year. The team pulled the game’s biggest upset by beating UConn in the semifinals. However, it was just to fall, exhausted, to conference rival South Carolina in the final. Well this year State won the SEC for the first time and their only loss was to a team, the same Gamecocks, who’ve already lost. In a game where fans a quick to dismiss Husky losses are flukes, the Bulldogs have a new task. They aim to be the sport’s first new undisputed best team since Baylor’s 40-0 2012 steamroll.
Best Player: Blair Schaefer
Starkville native? Check. Coach’s daughter? Check. And with a team high 95 threes, what does that mean for the opponent? Checkmate. Her teammates Morgan William and Victoria Vivians may claim the award, but Schaefer is the grease that keeps the team’s gears grinding into April. I’ve seen some games where a trailing team thought they had a chance. One timely Blair’s bomb later, the losers were disillusioned.
True, South Carolina did win last year’s title. But the Gamecocks are winless against UConn in eight tries and didn’t even seem to be trying Monday in a one-sided loss. With A’Ja Wilson departing USC, and the Vols going in circles (if not circling down), State could be the conference’s new power. It’s tempting to say, “well they have to win this year”. But the foundation of a castle of success has already been built, regardless of the color of the highest flag. The Bulldogs have all the markings of a top five dynasty, and they’re a gadfly teams won’t soon be able to shoo away.
That Notre Dame will face off against UConn in the Final Four is no surprise. After all, it is the sixth time in eight years the two rivals will battle in the last weekend. It’s the way they reached Columbus that’s unusual for any team. With four starters out for the year and her team facing a 40 point deficit to Louisville in January, Muffet McGraw could be forgiven for giving up. Even after earning a one seed, experts dismissively picked Oregon to win in the regionals. Indeed, the Ducks held a six point halftime lead Monday. But before the start of the third, the Irish were stoically focused on a comeback. Meanwhile, Oregon was all smiles. The more experienced Irish proved that women’s basketball is a very serious sport by easily storming back to win. (Although, as the above photo proves, postgame celebrations are never serious).
Arike had the luxury of coming off the bench for a stacked team her freshman year. With numerous injuries in 2018, she’s been thrust into the starting lineup. With a team-leading 20 points a game, she’s acquitted herself quite well. Against Oregon, I was impressed by her determined effort to chase after every 50-50 ball. With many top players returning, she will soon have her turn as senior guide to a fantastic rotation of recruits that keep cycling through South Bend this decade.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few, before his team finally made it, was once asked if he’d trade everything away for one Final Four berth. His answer was a resounding no, and rightfully so. The nitty-gritty of everyday play, and the small joys of each triumph, far outweigh any glitzy destination. It would definitely make the Irish feel good to finally win for the first time since 2001. But the methodology they’ve used to build the game’s second strongest program in and of itself makes the ride worth the price. They’re up against especially deep odds this year. UConn will be very hard to beat, and history proves teams that do slay the beast rarely have enough to win the final. But this team keeps proving doubters wrong this year, game after game. A tough task just means the reward is that much sweeter.
College football fans are tired of Alabama supposedly being motivated. The Tide’s success is such a blur that the rare loss just makes the next victim’s fate that much worse. After UConn’s stunning loss in last year’s Final Four, the rest of women’s basketball has become the same hapless snail in the 18 wheeler’s headlights. The Huskies cruise into their 11th straight Final Four at 36-0, winning by an average of 35 points a game. But their record is much more modest against the Irish: just 3-3 in the postseason.
Best Player: Gabby Williams
The Breanna Stewart big three Huskies were so well-run that the other nine women pretty much just had to stay out of the way. Williams had trouble keeping her emotions in check during that span, threatening to squander what’s been said to be one of the most talented set of skills ever seen in Connecticut. But she gradually matured to become the team’s emotional rock, and also the most well-rounded player. Despite battling through a hip injury, Williams gave a superhuman effort to win the conference title and must stayed poised if her team is to win its twelfth title.
The overwhelming hype over the 111 game winning streak mercifully went away after last year’s loss. The team’s talent did not. UConn is still a strong favorite to win its fifth title in six years, but has a few significant obstacles waiting. Also, Geno recently cautioned fans that the dynasty, like the Vols’ or Bruins’, will eventually fall. But with three starters returning and one of the top recruiting classes, UConn could soon resume its chokehold on the game’s spotlight with two more wins.
If the determined Huskies and Bulldogs meet Easter Sunday, one of the game’s best finals will certainly follow. State wants to prove that any tourney wild card can quickly become an ace. UConn wants to prove that it’s the human hand that carves out any house of cards. Notre Dame and Louisville want to prove that any dog can have her day, not just in the first round, but on the day her world stands by in awe, watching intently. Is it a demerit to the women’s game that its four best teams are the four last teams? Certainly not; it seems, rather, that the pacesetters have led the race to the final horn, one that always sounds on a ballplayer’s career. But in the women’s game, it’s a noise only fine-tuned ears have learned to appreciate.