This article is part of our March Madness series.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley believes her team’s offense has been unfairly maligned.
“I think a lot of people have questioned our offense throughout the tournament, and it just seems to be our team’s offense that’s been targeted about what our offense is doing, and no other team has been targeted in the way that our team has,” Staley said Tuesday during a media teleconference. “We’re playing good basketball. Whether our shooting percentage is in the 30s or in the 50s, I don’t think we’re taking bad shots. So if we’re taking bad shots, then we have issues. We’re just taking good shots that aren’t going in.”
Staley’s Gamecocks certainly fixed that in their regional final on Sunday against Creighton. After three straight tournament games shooting 35.4 percent or lower, and at least 14 turnovers in each contest, South Carolina shot 50.9 percent against the Bluejays and turned it over just seven times.
The focus on offense is less a result of a true deficiency in South Carolina — after all, the Gamecocks did finish 23rd inoffensive efficiency nationwide — and more because it’s the only real potential vulnerability to be found in the team with the second-best defensive efficiency and top rebounding rate in the country. No one has figured out a way to slow down Aliyah Boston, who posted a 28-and-22 game against North Carolina and only saw her double-double streak of 27 games come to an end against Creighton because she wasn’t needed in the latter stages of a blowout. Her 16 win shares already leads the nation by a huge margin — no one else accumulated as many as 13 this season, and she has at least one more game left.
Put it another way: If South Carolina shoots 40 percent from the field this weekend, they’re almost certainly going to win the national title. If they shoot like they did against Creighton, there’s going to be plenty of garbage time in both their games.
But it won’t be easy, not when their opponent in the early game is Louisville, a program that, according to head coach Jeff Walz, isn’t talked about the way other elite teams are.
“One of the things that will continue to grow with our game is our media,” said Walz. “They actually get out and look at the teams and look at the players instead of starting off the year with, hey, here’s who we’re going to run with, and they go with it. Those are the things I think we do miss out on. If people haven’t taken the opportunity to just watch what Emily Engstler and Hailey Van Lith and Kianna Smith have done for our team, you can only do so much. I can promote them, but when is our national media going to start to look at them all?”
So let’s look, shall we? Full disclosure: I’m a long-hauler on all three, admiring Engstler’s game dating back to her time as Miss New York State Basketball (and referenced her WNBA future again in a recent piece), and Smith’s explosiveness when she played at Cal before transferring to Louisville two years ago. A live look at them in December’s Mohegan Sun tournament only reinforced how good Walz’s team is.
But let’s talk Van Lith, because while the combo guard has been turning heads with her highlights dating back to high school, the question in many circles remained just how much damage she could do at 5-foot-7. The answer, after four straight 20-plus-point games in this NCAA Tournament: enough to carry her team to the Final Four, and possibly to a national championship. And while she’s a threat from deep, at 36.1 percent from three, a closer look at her shot chart reveals just how much efficient damage she does at the rim.
Walz has a ready answer for how she does it. “Because she’s strong,” Walz said. “She’s really worked hard in the weight room, conditioning. She’s able to absorb contact. It doesn’t knock her off balance. Then she can finish with her right or left hand. … She’s able to shoot a little bit of a fadeaway at times when she needs to get a shot up over the defender.
“But the bottom line is she’s trained so hard ever since she was in high school. When she got here as a freshman, her freshman summer, she’s one of the few freshmen we’ve had that’s ever passed our conditioning test the first time she did it, and that’s because of the training that she did before she got here.”
The late game features a pair of up-and-coming programs new to the scene in UConn and Stanford. I kid, of course: Stanford, the defending champions, have been to 13 Final Fours, while UConn is making its 14th straight trip.
The Huskies have maintained that streak, which dates back to 2008, thanks to an incredible performance from Paige Bueckers in a dramatic 91-87 double-overtime win over North Carolina State on Monday. Bueckers scored 15 of her 27 points in the two overtimes and looked every bit like last season’s leader in win shares, as opposed to the more limited player she had been since returning from injury.
Still, against Stanford, the critical new absence of Dorka Juhasz, who fractured and dislocated her wrist against the Wolfpack and was lost for the season, presents a matchup problem for the Huskies. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma took solace in the fact that while it makes life harder, at least it was on-brand for his team’s season.
“We were just having that discussion this morning, and we said, it’s kind of par for the course for this particular season,” Auriemma said. “We lose a big kid that is playing in their first NCAA Tournament — and Dorka was so excited that she couldn’t see straight in the first couple games. She was finally getting her legs under her yesterday and played a phenomenal three and a half minutes. Huge impact on the game. As fate would have it, the fracture in the wrist, and now she’s out for the tournament. Devastating for her. But it could only happen to us three days before we play the longest, most athletic front line, the tallest group of players that exist in the tournament, that being Stanford’s team and their amazing post players.
“What adjustments can we make? All we can do is do what we do. We’ve got to play with what we have. We can obviously tinker with some lineup situations as the game goes on. But we have what we have, and that’s not changing. We’re going to have to figure out a way to win with it. It’s unfortunate, but that’s kind of been our season this year.”
The dangers for UConn were evident in the latter stages of the NC State game. Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards were both in foul trouble, allowing Elissa Cunane to do damage inside. They’ll need to avoid early, unnecessary fouls, without Juhasz’s 6-foot-5 frame to throw at the Cardinal. And they’ll need perimeter scoring not just from Bueckers, but also from guards Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd, both of whom have scored in double figures each of the past three games and combined for 40 points on Monday night.
As for the Cardinal, there’s no shortage of contributors, led by two-way star wing Haley Jones. But the most effective of the bunch is Cameron Brink, the team’s leader in win shares per 40 minutes, combining efficient scoring around the rim with an emerging perimeter game on one end, and elite rim-protecting (11.8 block percentage this year ranked eighth in the country) and rebounding at the other.
Her Achilles heel, though, is fouls — she plays just 21.8 minutes per game because of them.
“Well, obviously she’s having a great season,” Stanford head coach Tara Vanderveer said. “If it were my choice, I’d have her on the court. Thankfully when she has struggled with fouls, other people have stepped up. I thought Fran Belibi did a really nice job, Ashten Prechtel, and Kiki Iriafen. I think that’s a little bit of a luxury right now that if she does pick up some early fouls then we can go to our bench. I don’t like it, but …”
VanDerveer also differentiated between legitimate fouls, “knucklehead fouls” and “mystery fouls.” They all count the same in the box score, though. How many fouls of any kind, and how soon Brink commits them, will dictate how much UConn needs to account for her, and could decide the game.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.