As flights and hotels in Minneapolis get more expensive, No. 1-seed Stanford women’s basketball (32-3, 16-0 Pac-12) is preparing to suit up for its second consecutive Final Four appearance, hopeful for the same outcome as last year. In Minneapolis, the Cardinal are joined by fellow No. 1-seeds South Carolina (33-2, 15-1 SEC) and Louisville (29-4, 16-2 ACC), as well as No. 2-seed UConn (29-5, 16-1 Big East).
On Friday, the Cardinal will face off against the Huskies. Each team will take the court with a legendary coach on the sideline: Stanford is led by the all-time winningest head coach in NCAA women’s basketball history, Tara VanDerveer, and UConn is coached by the equally elite Geno Auriemma, who has the second most wins as a head coach in NCAA women’s basketball history.
Although UConn is a No. 2-seed, they can’t be underestimated. The Huskies are elite and could have been a one-seed if not for a mid-season injury to star guard Paige Bueckers. With Bueckers back, the Cardinal’s road to the championship looks more daunting. This year also marks UConn’s 14th consecutive Final Four appearance, giving them the upper hand with experience on a big stage like this.
Both teams have reason to fear each other. First, the Cardinal will face an electric offense led by Bueckers. In the Huskies Elite Eight matchup against No. 1-seed NC State (32-4, 17-1 ACC), Bueckers recorded 27 points and six rebounds in the double-overtime victory. Auriemma also has other guards capable of high-scoring outputs too, most notably guard Christyn Wiliams; she notched 21 points last weekend against the Wolfpack.
VanDerveer and the Cardinal will combat the Huskies offensive prowess with Stanford’s strong defense, particularly from sixth-year guard Anna Wilson, the 2021 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Beyond Wilson, senior guards Lexie and Lacie Hull will surely provide defensive help, especially on the perimeter. Down low, sophomore forward Cameron Brink, the 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, will stand as a large defensive anchor. Throughout the tournament thus far, Brink is averaging just under four blocks per game and recorded six in her team’s Elite Eight victory last Sunday.
Offensively, Stanford has been led in the tournament by Lexie Hull. In four games, she scored 13 points against No. 16-seed Montana State (22-13, 14-6 Big Sky), 36 points against No. 8-seed Kansas (21-10, 11-7 Big 12), 19 against No. 4-seed Maryland (23-9, 13-4 Big Ten) and 20 in the Elite Eight against No. 2-seed Texas (29-7, 13-5 Big 12). She led the Cardinal in scoring in the three most recent games and was the team’s second-leading scorer in the Round of 64.
The only Stanford player to outscore Hull in a game this postseason is junior guard Hannah Jump, who poured in 15 points against the Bobcats to demonstrate the depth of the Stanford bench. With Jump, junior forward Fran Belibi and junior forward Ashten Prechtel as the first three off the bench, the Huskies’ defense may falter late in the game when they are tired.
Should Stanford win, it would move on to play the winner of Louisville and South Carolina. In what is sure to be an all-time aviary classic, the Cardinal may potentially face a team that they lost to earlier this season in South Carolina. But, both teams could provide Stanford with their toughest and most important game of the season.
South Carolina held the top spot in the AP Poll all season. Led by the Naismith National Player of the Year and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, forward Aaliyah Boston, and the Naismith National Coach of the Year in Dawn Staley, South Carolina has looked unstoppable throughout the tournament so far. On defense, they are the only team this season to out-block Stanford, and they do so by more than 45 blocks. The Gamecocks also recorded the most rebounds in the country, averaging just over 48 per game.
To compliment its tenacious defense, South Carolina also has a potent offense. On average, the Gamecocks score 20 more points per game than their opponent. Against the Cardinal early in the season, South Carolina outscored a highly-ranked Cardinal offense 37-19 in the second half alone. In that game, Boston scored a team-high 18 points to go along with her 11 rebounds and five blocks. If the currently-favored Gamecocks win against Louisville, Stanford will draw a tough matchup in the national championship.
But even if Louisville pulls off the upset, Stanford would still have a difficult road to another title. Louisville is led by guard Hailey Van Lith, who enters the Final Four with four straight games scoring more than 20 points. Behind Van Lith, the Cardinals also boasts star guard Chelsie Hall, who provides seniority and leadership as a sixth-year captain. Van Lith’s play, mixed with Hall’s leadership as well as that by head coach Jeff Walz, is a scary combination that could bring trouble to Stanford’s aspirations of repeating.
Before the tournament began, VanDerveer instituted a challenge to all teams in the NCAA tournament: for every 3-pointer scored, VanDerveer pledged 10 dollars to a Ukrainian relief fund to aid them in their defense against Russia. So far, 691 triples have been made throughout the tournament; the total donation amount currently sits at $6910. This number only looks to increase during the Final Four, as each team averages at least four made 3-point shots per game. Though the Cardinal did not shoot particularly well from behind the arc against Texas, the team has several players, namely Lexie Hull and Jump, who can easily get red-hot from three.
Before the Cardinal can dance again and parade in Palo Alto, they have a tough road ahead of them. The final leg of Stanford’s 2021-22 journey will begin against UConn on Friday with tipoff slated for 6:30 p.m. PT. Should the Cardinal win, their next and final game of the season will begin on Sunday at 5 p.m. PT.