Women’s Final Four predictions: Which teams are the favorites in the national semifinals?
MINNEAPOLIS — The 2022 women’s Final Four is full of some of the most recognizable stars in women’s college basketball. South Carolina‘s Aliyah Boston. Stanford‘s Haley Jones. Louisville‘s Hailey Van Lith. UConn‘s Paige Bueckers.
But for as much as those standouts have received attention for their double-double streaks, flashy plays or ability to come up with clutch baskets in key moments, that might not be how Friday’s national semifinals are won.
“I think whoever plays the best defense [Friday] is going to win the game, if I’m being completely honest,” UConn senior guard Christyn Williams said ahead of the Huskies’ matchup against defending national champion Stanford (9: 30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
All four teams advanced to the Final Four behind top-tier defenses. The four teams boast top-18 defensive ratings in Division I women’s basketball, per Her Hoop Stats, allowing between 73.7 (South Carolina) and 81.5 points (Stanford) per 100 possessions. All eight teams are included in the top 8.
What other factors or players could make the difference between winning and losing on the season’s biggest stage? Mechelle Voepel, Alexa Philippou, and Katie Barnes from ESPN offer their perspectives. They also break down South Carolina-Louisville (7 p.m.
If superstars Haley Jones and Paige Bueckers both have huge games but cancel each other out with big performances, which player steps up as the difference-maker in Stanford-UConn?
Voepel: Stanford senior Lexie Hull always has had go-to scoring ability, but on a team with so many threats, she can sometimes be more a “cog” than a star. Yet look who has led the way in scoring the past three games on the road to Minneapolis for Stanford: Hull with 36, 19 and 20 points.
The 6-foot-1 guard has averaged 22.0 PPG and 5.3 RPG while shooting 52.4% from the field so far in this NCAA tournament. Hull’s playmaking skills match those of UConn. She is quick and agile, and will jump to the floor to retrieve a ball. This is the same kind of hustle that Tara VanDerveer, Stanford coach, loves.
Philippou: Cameron Brink has become a force this season for the Cardinal, boasting the ability to score in different ways (including increasingly from the 3-point arc), rebound and rim protect. Her third-quarter outburst against Texas (10 points, three rebounds, three blocks, one steal in that frame alone) was terrifying for any future opponent. She has been in foul trouble too, picking up nine fouls over the past two games. She also sat much of the Texas game’s first half when the Cardinal could have used her. Her 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes is in the 11th percentile among Division I women’s basketball players, per Her Hoop Stats.
Stanford has its best chance of winning the longer Brink stays on the floor. And if she does, she’ll have the edge going up against a depleted UConn post corps that’s down to just two bigs following Dorka Juhasz season-ending wrist injury.
Barnes: For the Huskies to have a chance against Stanford, the postseason version of Christyn Williams will need to show up in a big way. For all of the focus on Bueckers’ heroics down the stretch in the Elite Eight classic against NC State, Williams also played well, scoring 21 points and snagging five rebounds. But those 21 points were inefficient. Williams shot 9-of-22 from the field and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. Williams’ jumper has been inconsistent throughout the course of her career. But, if Williams is on against Stanford, watch out.
And not to cheat the system by sneaking in an extra point, but after Bueckers’ huge performance, she’s likely to draw more defensive attention. That can create gaps for teammate Azzi Fudd to exploit. Fudd was much more active against NC State than she has been in previous games. She could also be more active off the ball if Stanford’s length hinders her ability catch and shoot.
In a battle of elite backcourts, what or who will be the X factor when South Carolina and Louisville meet?
Barnes: South Carolina senior guard Destanni Henderson has the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. South Carolina will have an easier night if she plays at the same level as she has shown her ability. Henderson is capable of scoring at all three levels. Defenses will have a harder time keeping Boston’s lane when Henderson hits outside shots, as she did against Creighton. As we saw in December against Stanford, Henderson can also create with her quick hands and increase defensive pressure. Henderson’s defense against the Cardinal in the third quarter is a great example of her impact; she was able to turn the tide almost entirely on her own.
Philippou: I’ll go with the other South Carolina guard, Zia Cooke. Is she going to have a North Carolina-esque game (15 points, 3-for-7 from 3), or a Creighton-esque performance (0 points, 0-for-4 shooting from the field)? It’s more than scoring points. If Cooke starts hitting outside shots, other teams will not be able to pack as much paint and make it difficult for Boston.
It bears reminding that Cooke — who has had a pretty inconsistent season — came up huge in last year’s national semifinal loss against eventual champion Stanford with a team-high 25 points on 5-for-8 shooting from 3; she’s done it before, but can she do it again against Louisville’s defense? It’s difficult for me to imagine South Carolina reducing the nets without Henderson or Cooke having strong final games.
Voepel: Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith doesn’t want the Cardinals’ offense to get short-changed by the praise for their defense. During the Wichita Regional she made it clear, even joking — although she may have been serious — that the Cardinals’ defense is so good because they are eager to score.
Yet Thursday, Van Lith acknowledged that both Louisville and South Carolina were so good defensively that both offenses had to be prepared to grind their gears more than usual.
“Whether the ball goes in on the offensive end for us, we’re going to guard, and we’re going to play defense and we’re going to rebound,” Van Lith said. It will be an elite guard matchup but I believe it’s going be who’s mentally the most tough to deal with the fact that these two elite defenses are not influenced by what’s happening on offense.
“For us and our guards, if we shoot great, amazing. If we don’t shoot great, we’ll defend and make sure they don’t score. “
In other words, no time to fret about shots that don’t go in. This will make two of the most difficult defenses even more difficult.
Check out the best moments from some of the biggest upsets in the 2022 NCAA women’s tournament.
Which one-on-one matchup are you most looking forward to seeing in Friday’s semifinals?
Philippou: To follow the line of thinking I introduced above, I’m super intrigued to see how Brink and UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa fare against each other. Nelson-Ododa out-toughed NC State’s Elissa Cunane much of their Elite Eight matchup, though Nelson-Ododa’s foul trouble down the stretch affected her aggressiveness. Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards, a big player, won’t put up huge scoring numbers but their ability to control glass is a major X factor that allowed UConn through the Bridgeport Region.
So who will throw the first punch, so to speak, on Friday and capitalize if/when the opposing center has to sit?
“I think staying out of foul trouble will be key for tomorrow,” Nelson-Ododa said. “That’s something Aaliyah has struggled with during this tournament. While we are aggressive on the defensive side, it is important to know when to be more thoughtful. “
Barnes: Henderson vs. Van Lith will be a battle between two, hardworking guards who scrap, dive and do whatever it takes to get their team a win. Despite being 5-foot-7, both guards average just 3.3 rebounds per game (3.3 for Henderson and 3.4 for Van Lith). Van Lith carries a larger scoring burden though, averaging 14.5 points per game compared to Henderson’s 11.1 points. If these two teams match up, they could have a significant defensive impact and claw for points. The winner of this battle at both ends of the court could tip the balance in favor of one team.
Voepel: Twenty-seven years ago here in Minneapolis, UConn met Stanford in the national semifinals. The Huskies’ Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti, and Stanford’s Kate Starbird (and Kristin Folkl) were among the players back then. But VanDerveer and Geno Auriemma are still on opposing sidelines, just as they were in 1995, and that’s a matchup to watch Friday. They are 1-2 on the career victory list among D-I women’s coaches, with VanDerveer leading 1,157-1,148.
There were some hard feelings coming into that game: Auriemma was ticked when he heard VanDerveer’s answer to a question about then-Huskies freshman Nykesha Sales. VanDerveer basically said that she was good, but that “We have five Nykesha sales.” Stanford didn’t. UConn poured it on, winning 87-60 on its way to its first NCAA championship.
Then when Lobo made the traveling team that prepared for the 1996 Summer Olympics, she was criticized by USA coach VanDerveer as not being good enough to help the Americans. Auriemma didn’t appreciate this, either.
Still, Auriemma’s and VanDerveer’s relationship has never been as contentious as his dealing with Tennessee’s Pat Summitt once was and with former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw still is. Auriemma did have a bit of a joking session Thursday about how the regular-season series was ended between the two programs.
“It didn’t get renewed,” he said. “We played at their house, then they were supposed come back to ours, but something got lost in translation, I suppose. They’ve always been great friends. Some have been close, others not so close.
“But I think like us, they haven’t changed much over the years. They play the same style of game. You can see exactly what you will get when you watch them. Stanford is a place where there are no surprises. They don’t always come up with new and better ways to play every year. They work hard, they play well together, they are positionless most of time, and they shoot the ball great every season. It’s the same Stanford team that I remember 27 years ago playing around here. It’s just different people. “
Which teams win Friday?
Last season, Stanford beat South Carolina in the national semifinals. Is there a chance they will meet again in the NCAA title match?
South Carolina vs. Louisville
Barnes: South Carolina
Creme: South Carolina
Philippou: South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina
Stanford vs. UConn
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.