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What To Watch In A Star-Studded Final Four

The level of star power in this year’s NCAA women’s Final Four is astonishing to behold. Not just the amount of talent involved, but the diversity of it, promises a wild weekend ahead, with Stanford facing South Carolina, Connecticut taking on Arizona and the winners facing off on Sunday for the national title.

The coaches alone are among the most dazzling: Tara VanDerveer, Dawn Staley, Geno Auriemma and Adia Barnes. There are two coaches in women’s basketball history with more career victories than Pat Summitt, and they are both here. In VanDerveer and Auriemma, there are two Olympic gold medal coaches in the Final Four, with Staley — the current national team coach — expected to join them this summer. (VanDerveer, incidentally, coached Staley in her gold medal turn in 1996.)

And Barnes, in her first Final Four, is as heralded as any young coach in the game, taking her alma mater, somewhat unexpectedly, to the precipice of the summit as well. The ascension of Barnes next to Staley, meaning this year’s national semifinals will feature two Black head coaches for the first time, was cheered by the South Carolina head coach.

“I’m super proud of Adia,” Staley said Tuesday night, after the Gamecocks advanced by beating Texas 62-34. “I wanted that to happen. I was cheering for her to get it done. It was not for any other reason besides us being represented at the biggest stage of women’s college basketball.”

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Across the rosters, too, the Final Four includes a variation of star — from the smaller (5-foot-6 Aari McDonald of Arizona) to the taller (6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston of South Carolina). How brightly those stars shine will go a long way in determining this year’s champion, but the differing styles of play and points of emphasis among the four teams are also key in the remaining contests.

The early matchup Friday night features former pupil Staley, now back to her third Final Four in six tournaments, against VanDerveer, who faced her in the 2017 Final Four, a game won by South Carolina. That game was played at a methodical, Stanford-like pace, 65.5 possessions per 40 minutes. If Staley has her way, the 2021 matchup — featuring a very different pair of teams — will go a very different way.

A purple basketball illustration of where the lines on the ball are brackets

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“I do believe we have to play fast,” Staley said on Thursday during a media Zoom call. “We have to generate more possessions in this particular game because Stanford is very patient, offensively. They will give up a good shot, probably a few times in a possession, to get the best shot.”

Staley is right, of course. The gap between the two teams in efficiency can largely be seen in the gap between South Carolina’s effective field-goal percentage of 47.4, 96th in the country, and Stanford’s 53.8, ninth in Division I. It’s an offense that devastates inside and out, with the Cardinal in the top 15 both inside and beyond the arc.

But the Gamecocks can even things out the more they get possessions in transition, and by limiting Stanford from doing the same off of missed shots or turnovers. Per Synergy, South Carolina is scoring 0.940 points per possession on the run, and Stanford scores 0.906 in the half-court. By contrast, a game in which the Gamecocks are forced into half-court sets (0.823 points per possession), and Stanford runs (1.106 points per possession), could get ugly. There’s no obvious point of emphasis to stopping Stanford in the half-court, either, with mismatch-creating wings and bigs like Cameron Brink and Haley Jones, multiple Hulls and seven rotation members shooting better than 36 percent from three — all guided by floor general Kiana Williams.

As VanDerveer noted, however, there is another equalizer in this one, and it comes directly from what South Carolina does best.

“The most obvious thing is that we have to rebound,” VanDerveer said Thursday morning. “They’re a team that outrebounds opponents by 15. And if our team, you know, is not going to be on the glass, we’ll be coming home Saturday morning.”

Stanford is an excellent rebounding team — 11th in the country in rebounding rate — but South Carolina is a cut above, fourth in total rate, top-15 on both the offensive and defensive glass. It helps to have the best big in the country, Boston, leading the way, but five South Carolina rotation members have double-digit rebounding percentages.

In the late game, much of the focus, and rightly so, will be on the two point guards for Arizona and Connecticut. But while the Wildcats’ McDonald and the Huskies’ Paige Bueckers are among the best at the position, they accumulate their value in very different ways. Each is a two-way star, with McDonald posting a steal percentage north of 4, and Bueckers not far behind her at 3.2 percent. But while much of McDonald’s defensive damage comes on-ball, Bueckers is often a turnover generator of opportunity, jumping into passing lanes.

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Typically, the on-ball defensive work against the biggest perimeter threat to UConn comes from Bueckers’s backcourt mate Christyn Williams, who covered freshman phenom Caitlin Clark when the Huskies took on Iowa, for example. Once upon a time, Williams was the consensus top overall freshman coming into the game. Now a junior, she’s not the center of attention, but that’s OK with her.

“I’d say I’m under the radar, but that’s fueling my fire,” Williams said with a shrug on Thursday after scoring more than 20 points in each of the past two games. “I’m still working hard and I’m still growing my game, and that’s all that matters. So I’m just playing with a chip on my shoulder. I just want to win.”

The Huskies do essentially everything well. They’re top-three in the country in both offensive and defensive rating. While McDonald is a volume scorer, Bueckers is a master of efficiency, 56.2 percent from 2-point range, 45.9 percent from three. They’re sixth in total rebound rate and third in assist-to-turnover ratio.

But just like UConn doesn’t only rely on Bueckers, Arizona did not get to the Final Four on McDonald alone. 

“Arizona is a team that really understands what they are,” Auriemma said. “They understand what their identity is.” 

Bouncy 6-foot-2 junior Cate Reese can protect the rim, and versatile 6-foot forward Sam Thomas can be deployed against opposing 2-4s, part of an athletic group that switches with abandon and upsets an opponent’s timing. Finishing 14th in the country in defensive efficiency despite playing in the uber-talented Pac-12 is testament to that. Even so, while Barnes acknowledged that her team is the underdog, she said her players aren’t cowed by the moment. She’s clear, though, on who she’s facing.

“Coach Auriemma is a legend,” Barnes said Monday night. “It’s kind of a shock when he doesn’t go to the Final Four and win a championship. He’s just done an amazing job. One of the best coaches there is. They’re a confident team because it’s chartered territory. It’s uncharted for us. This is something they’re used to.” 

However the Wildcats fare against the Huskies, this feels less like an aberration than a beginning for Arizona.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

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Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.