Sports

The Women’s Final Four Is a Thrilling Clash of the Titans

The matchups are the perfect capper to what has been an exceptionally good tournament.

Four UConn women's basketball players standing together on the court wearing navy blue jerseys with a red and white pinstripe.
Paige Bueckers of the UConn Huskies with teammates Christyn Williams, Azzi Fudd, and Aaliyah Edwards during the NCAA Elite Eight game on Monday in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Elsa/Getty Images

A typical allure of an NCAA basketball tournament is that it doesn’t go according to chalk. Upsets happen, Goliaths fall, brackets bust, and everyone is subject to all the volatility of a single-elimination event involving 68 teams. There has been some of that in the 2022 women’s tournament—a pair of No. 2 seeds, Iowa and Baylor, didn’t escape the round of 32—to tide over the anarchists among the sport’s fanbase. But sometimes, a tournament is most fun when it works out almost exactly as the majority expects. Sometimes, the most fun comes when the best just duke it out, and there is no Cinderella to be used as a mop in the later rounds.

Advertisement

That is where we are now, on the verge of a Final Four that begins Friday night and wraps with the national title game on Sunday. It is the ideal capper to what’s been an exceptionally good championship. In one corner, it features the defending national champion. In another sits the sport’s most iconic and consistently elite brand. In another is the likely actual best team, led by its own legendary coach and national player of the year. And last, there’s an upstart that’s never won a title but has one of the most fun talents the sport has seen in years. The Final Four features four of the top five teams in the pre-tournament Associated Press poll, and the lowest-ranked among them can barely ever be called an underdog anyway. If you prefer your sports to be best-on-best, you will have a hard time finding better than this.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The first national semifinal pits No. 1 overall seed South Carolina against another No. 1, Louisville. The Gamecocks are 8-point favorites, for uncomplicated reasons: They’re 33–2. They have won their average game by 20 points and weren’t any kinder to opponents in the regional rounds, which culminated in a 30-point win over one of the No. 10 seeds, Creighton, that had knocked out a No. 2 seed, Iowa. They have the best player in the country this year, forward Aliyah Boston, who averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocks in just 28 minutes per night. (When you win by as much as the Cocks do, you rest a lot.) Boston was the first player to win both national and defensive player of the year awards simultaneously. The team has two other double-figure scorers in guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke.

Advertisement

Tying it all together is their head coach, Dawn Staley, who led the program to the national title in 2017 and has been in both the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for about a decade. Since then, she’s won not just the one ring at South Carolina, but also Olympic gold with Team USA. She is one of basketball’s most respected figures, and one would not bet that she would have South Carolina anything less than completely ready to play, which makes the team scary.

Advertisement

Louisville, her semifinal opponent, is the closest thing the Final Four has to a true underdog. But that is pushing it at least a little, given that the Cardinals are a No. 1 seed themselves and have Hailey Van Lith, one of the country’s most dangerous scorers. It is hard to watch Van Lith hug her parents after Louisville’s Elite Eight win over Michigan, tell them, “I’m gonna win this shit,” and not take her seriously. That’s more or less how Van Lith plays: as a one-woman wrecking crew who could take the Cardinals quite far under the right circumstances. Near the end of his life, Kobe Bryant reached out to Van Lith’s family to ask for guidance on how to train up his daughter, Gianna, into a star like Van Lith. After the Elite Eight game, a reporter asked Van Lith what Bryant would tell her: “He would say, ‘Go fucking win this shit, Hailey.’ ”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s cool that she said that live on national TV, of course, but it’s extra intriguing because Van Lith plays a little bit like Bryant did, especially late in his career—or maybe like Russell Westbrook. She is not a hyperefficient scorer who wins games on spreadsheets. She averages 15 points, three rebounds, and two assists per game, and her shooting percentages are much more “good” than “great.” She’s recently had games in which she’s gone 2-for-10 and 7-for-21 from the field. But when Van Lith is cooking, she’s a force of nature. She has scored between 20 and 23 points in all four of Louisville’s tournament wins and often looked possessed doing it:

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

If Van Lith misses a bunch of shots against South Carolina, it will be a long night. But if she has one of her signature games, she could dynamite the best team in the country. She also has a fair bit of help. Louisville forward Emily Engstler, who averages 12 points, nine boards, and two blocks per game, would figure to be a critical counterweight to Boston on South Carolina’s side.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The other semifinal is an epic head-to-head between the defending national champ, Stanford, and the team that’s won more of those (11), than anyone else: UConn. Oddsmakers mostly have this matchup as a pick’em, meaning neither side is favored, or have Stanford by a point.

Advertisement

Since winning the whole thing last year by one point over Arizona, Tara VanDerveer’s team has pretty much just kept winning. The Cardinal are 32–3 and didn’t lose a Pac-12 game. They have almost everyone back from the title-winning team, with the main exception being guard Kiana Williams, who became a first-round WNBA draftee in 2021. Their frontcourt is harrowing. The Cardinal block 6.3 shots per game, a top-five national figure, and have limited opponents to a hilariously low 35 percent shooting rate from the field. (South Carolina is even better here, at 33 percent.)

Advertisement

Forward Cameron Brink (13 points, eight rebounds, three blocks per game) and guard Haley Jones (13 points, eight boards, four assists) are the headliners in Stanford’s roughly eight-deep rotation. Championship pedigrees on this roster go even deeper than all the actual winning; guard Anna Wilson is Super Bowl QB Russell Wilson’s sister. Brink is godsister to Steph Curry.

Ordinarily speaking, a defending champ with that profile would feel ticketed for the title game, at least. But for Stanford, that has to be in doubt, because UConn is the team on the other side of the semis. The Huskies’ reputation precedes them, but the biggest reason to fear them isn’t all of Geno Auriemma’s titles—UConn has lost in every Final Four since its win in 2016, after all—but because the deadliest player in the country might be all the way heated up.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Paige Bueckers was the Naismith Player of the Year in 2021 as a true freshman. This season, much like every season until (and probably after) she turns pro, was supposed to be another year of Bueckers dominance. But the guard injured her left knee in early December and missed 19 games across the better part of three months while recovering from surgery. Bueckers returned in late February and eased into things, playing smaller minute loads and scoring well off her usual pace (which, as a freshman, was 20 points per game). She didn’t play more than 18 minutes in any of the five games she appeared in between her injury and March Madness.

Unfortunately for everyone else, Bueckers appears to now be Bueckers again. She got a little more involved early in the tournament, scored 15 points in 33 minutes against Indiana in the Sweet 16, and then utterly took over in a captivating double-overtime win over NC State in the Elite Eight. Bueckers played 45 minutes and scored 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field, making six of her seven free throws on a night when her teammates made six of 13. Bueckers buried the Wolfpack in a barrage of mid-range jumpers, routinely creating her own shots off the dribble. She added six rebounds, and UConn needed every bit she gave it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The news from that win over NC State was not all good. Dorka Juhász, a key interior presence at 6-foot-5, fractured her left wrist and won’t play in the Final Four. That feels like a big problem against Stanford and will likely encourage Auriemma to lean even more heavily on Bueckers and fellow guards Azzi Fudd (a freshman herself) and Christyn Williams (a senior). Fudd was the class of 2022’s No. 1 overall recruit, a year after Bueckers took that honor.

Advertisement

There is a lot of subtext around these games. Stanford and South Carolina wins in the semis would set up a rematch of last year’s national semifinal, which Stanford won 66-65 in the last second, but this time in the title game. (South Carolina exacted a minor vengeance with a regular season win at home, not that it would count for much.) UConn always has a target on its back, but it hasn’t won the title in half a decade and could be getting antsy right about now that it lacks the edge on the rest of the sport that it once had. Louisville will be in its fourth Final Four since 2009, all under coach Jeff Walz, but it still hasn’t reached the mountaintop. And it’s not like that gets a lot easier once a talent like Van Lith is playing at the next level.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

On another hand, this Final Four is not a final act. Many of the key contributors on these teams are underclassmen who have more college basketball in front of them. It’s easy to imagine a field that looks a lot like this one recurring in 2023. And it’s even easier to imagine a lot of these players—Boston, Bueckers, Van Lith, Fudd, Brink, and Jones, among others—forming a big piece of the next generation of women’s basketball. These players are not done slugging at each other. The fun this weekend is that so many of them are in one place at the same time.

Advertisement