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What do all of the Final Four teams have in common? The answer is simple: these are four of the best defensive teams in the entire country. Between all 343 Division I schools, UConn ranks 1st in Her Hoops Stats Defensive Rating. South Carolina ranks 3rd. Stanford ranks 4th. And Arizona ranks 6th.
Their strengths vary. Arizona steals a lot of passes. South Carolina blocks a lot of shots. But it doesn’t really matter how they do it. The result is the same – they all thrive on defense. In a Final Four packed with stars like Paige Bueckers, Aari McDonald, Aliyah Boston, Kiana Williams, and Zia Cooke, defense will decide these Final Four games.
No. 1 Stanford vs No. 1 South Carolina (6:00pm ET on ESPN)
Stanford started off the season steaming hot. They won 11 straight games. They blew out future NCAA tournament (and Final Four) squads. They locked teams up, holding every single opponent to less than 64 points.
They looked like the best team in the country.
Then came the back-to-back losses.
They fell in an overtime loss to a 6-6 Colorado team, before losing to UCLA five days later. In both of these games, the Cardinal were destroyed on the boards, giving up 11 offensive rebounds to Colorado and 21 to UCLA. Tara VanDerveer didn’t wait any longer to make an adjustment. The very next game, she inserted 6-foot-5 freshman forward Cameron Brink into the starting lineup. Since then, Brink has started every game, averaging 20.3 minutes, 10.2 points, and 3.1 blocks. Most importantly, Stanford hasn’t lost again.
Stanford’s Final Four matchup with South Carolina will come down to a battle at the rim. Both teams pride themselves on being two of the best rim protecting teams in the country. Stanford allows opponents to make just 35.6% of their two-point shots, while South Carolina allows them to make just 39.1%. And that starts with the long arms of Cameron Brink and the defensive IQ of South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston – the anchors of each team’s defense.
The Gamecocks, especially, make a conscious effort to funnel ball handlers into Boston. 64.9% of opponents’ field goal attempts against South Carolina come from two-point range, the second highest mark in the country. If South Carolina can run Stanford off the three-point line – a team that has shot 46.3% from three over the last six games – this could be a physical and grueling game. That plays to South Carolina’s advantage. They thrive in games like this, games where they might have to bang for buckets and scrap for steals and fight for offensive boards. It might not be pretty, but South Carolina could surprise some people on Friday.
South Carolina 71, Stanford 68
No. 1 UConn vs No. 3 Arizona (9:30pm ET on ESPN)
The Huskies know how to bottle up a star player. Just ask their past four NCAA tournament opponents. UConn has faced off with a range of individual superstars – from Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith to Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. And in each of those four games, the opposing team’s leading scorer has finished with less points than their season average. On Friday, the Huskies will need to do the same to Aari McDonald. To say that the Wildcats’ offense centers around McDonald is an understatement. She is the offense. Her usage rate of 35.2% ranks 9th amongst players who appeared in 10 or more games this season. It sometimes feels like McDonald is asked to speed around all five defenders to find a shot.
During the NCAA Tournament, McDonald has arguably played the best basketball of her college career. But really, it has been the Wildcats’ defense that has allowed them to reach their first-ever Final Four. In each of their four tournament wins, they’ve held opponents to an average of 50.5 points per game. On the flip side, in each of their five losses this season, opponents have averaged 67.6 points per game. If the Wildcats play defense, they’ll win. If they don’t, they’ll lose.
Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. Maybe McDonald, the Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, clamps up Paige Bueckers, forcing her into turnovers and tough shots. Or maybe Cate Reese, the Wildcats’ second leading scorer, comes alive after averaging just 8.7 points over the team’s last nine games. Maybe they keep it close enough for some more Aari McDonald late-game heroics.
It sounds good, but don’t expect it to happen. Not against UConn. Not against Geno Auriemma and Paige Bueckers. Arizona might play strong defense, holding all teams to 55.2 points per game, but the Huskies haven’t scored below 63 points all season. This game won’t be the exception.
UConn 75, Arizona 58