The Elite Eight of the women’s NCAA tournament is set. The regional finals include all of the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds for the fifth time in women’s tournament history.
Mechelle Voepel, Kevin Pelton, Elizabeth Merrill and David Newton, all of whom are covering the regionals for ESPN, weigh in on the matchups, what they’re most looking forward to and what we might expect when the games resume Sunday.
Who had the most clutch performance in the Sweet 16?
Elizabeth Merrill: On an afternoon where an experienced senior and a gritty sophomore exchanged jabs, Arike Ogunbowale delivered the knockout punch to Texas A&M and Chennedy Carter.
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The Notre Dame senior broke open a 69-69 tie in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M on Saturday with her own 5-0 run. She scored 24 points in the second half, and willed her team to victory. The Irish fed off her energy, and advanced to their third straight Elite Eight.
“The bigger the moment, the bigger she plays,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “She’s not afraid of a big moment by any means. There [were] a lot of times we were just running stuff for her, and we ran a lot of sets for her, and she responded incredibly well. She just got that mentality of, ‘I want the ball in a clutch situation,’ and she’s not afraid to miss.”
Ogunbowale finished with a career-high 34 points, the most for any Irish player in the NCAA tournament since Charel Allen’s 35 points in the second round in 2008.
Carter finished with 35 points, her fourth career 30-point NCAA tournament game
Mechelle Voepel: I agree with Merrill’s pick of Arike Ogunbowale; that battle between her and Chennedy Carter was even more than we were expecting — and we were expecting a lot. Plus, Megan Gustafson was her usual double-double self for Iowa.
But I’ll also give a shout out to UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield. The Huskies trailed 50-49 after three quarters Friday — and then Dangerfield showed up. She scored 11 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter, including a couple of daggers that UCLA coach Cori Close acknowledged took some of her team’s confidence away.
Dangerfield said she was just “taking what the defense was giving us.” But she deserves more credit than that. With UConn’s season on the line, she took over.
“Basketball is dictated by the people that have the ball in their hands the majority of the time,” Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. “Crystal’s biggest adjustment or biggest growth has come from taking on more personal accountability, more responsibility.
“Her freshman year and her sophomore year, she had a lot of people around her that if she didn’t play well or something didn’t go right, they could bail her out. And now she’s in a situation where she looks around and says, ‘It’s all on me.’ “
What is the best game of the Elite Eight?
Voepel: UConn versus Louisville could be a dandy. Either Louisville will get another signature victory, or UConn will reach its 12th consecutive Final Four.
It’s hard enough to beat UConn once during a season, let alone twice. That’s what Louisville will be facing, and the Cardinals — despite being the No. 1 seed — see themselves as underdogs. That’s understandable, even if they won their Jan. 31 meeting in Louisville 78-69. After all, UConn still leads the series 17-2.
Baylor and Notre Dame are unanimous picks to reach the Women’s Final Four. Our panel is split on UConn-Louisville and Mississippi State-Oregon.
Experience and Arike Ogunbowale’s career-high 34 points won out as the Irish staved off a 35-point effort from Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter.
Oregon handed Mississippi State one of its two losses when the teams met in December. This time, a trip to the Final Four is on the line.
UConn doesn’t take the underdog tag, even if the Huskies are the lower seed. They know what went wrong in the earlier meeting and hope to make up for that.
“We need to improve on everything,” UConn’s Napheesa Collier said. “We played just not our game at all. And we were watching the film, and we were just like, ‘What are we doing? That doesn’t look like us at all — how we’re playing now, and how we know that we can play.’ So just staying composed and knowing that we need to run our stuff and not kind of getting so flustered as we did in that game.”
Trying to slow Collier will be one of Louisville’s goals; she had 25 points and 10 rebounds in UConn’s 69-61 victory over UCLA. The Cardinals know that Collier’s versatility and ability to move all over the court will require a very strong team-defense effort. That’s something Louisville has excelled at all season.
The Cardinals hit 11 3-pointers in that meeting; for the season, they average 7.9 per game. So they’ll need another big performance from beyond the arc.
“What went well is we scored the basketball,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of the first meeting. “It’s the one thing I’ve always said: If you want to have a chance to beat UConn, you’ve got to score. Their defense does so well because I think their offense is so good.”
Other than January’s game, Louisville’s only victory over the Huskies was in the 1993 NCAA tournament, two years before UConn won its first national championship.
Kevin Pelton: By the numbers, Mississippi State and Oregon are the biggest toss-up of the Elite Eight. FiveThirtyEight’s projections, which take into account the location of the game in Portland, Oregon, give the Ducks a tiny 52-48 edge over the top-seeded Bulldogs.
The style of play in Sunday’s game should be entertaining, too. When these teams met in December in Eugene, they both shot better than 50 percent from the field. Add in stars who could be playing their final college games (Mississippi State senior Teaira McCowan and Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, who is eligible for this year’s WNBA draft if she forgoes her senior season) and a loud pro-Ducks crowd at the Moda Center and you’ve got all the makings of a classic game.
What’s the best individual matchup of the Elite Eight?
David Newton: Kalani Brown, Baylor, vs. Megan Gustafson, Iowa. It’s size versus mobility, or at least that’s how it seems. Brown knows she has been criticized at times for her lack of mobility and there will be those watching to see how she handles Gustafson, who uses footwork and positioning under the basket as well as any inside threat in the tourney.
Gustafson, the espnW national player of the year, also is a strong finisher, which helps explain why she’s converting 70 percent of her field goals. She might be four inches shorter than Brown, but she plays big and Brown occasionally plays small.
Brown knows she can’t just out-physical Gustafson. She also says she believes this is a chance to showcase how far she has come in terms of mobility.
Voepel: A lot of eyes will be on the two senior big women in the Greensboro Regional, although Baylor junior Lauren Cox probably will play a big role, too, in that post battle.
But the scoring battle between senior guard Asia Durr of Louisville and freshman guard Christyn Williams of UConn could be a huge factor in the Albany Regional final.
UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson has been battling back issues and has had to just gut it out. She was 1-of-6 from the field and made four free throws to total six points in the Huskies’ regional semifinal win over UCLA. But UConn got 14 points from Williams, and the Huskies needed that. She didn’t shoot well (5 of 15), but especially if Samuelson continues to be somewhat limited, Williams has to step forward again. She is averaging 11.3 points and has scored in double figures in her past seven games.
As for Durr, she has been telling some corny jokes in news conferences — “What do you call flying bread? A plain bagel. Get it?” — and keeping her team loose and confident.
Durr had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in Louisville’s 61-44 victory over Oregon State on Friday, but she might need more like the 24 points (or more) she had earlier this season versus UConn for the Cardinals to win. Durr is averaging 21.2 points.
Which team faces the biggest defensive challenge of the Elite Eight?
Pelton: Mississippi State trying to defend Oregon’s spread pick-and-roll. Vic Schaefer’s defenses are typically among the country’s best, and in 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan the Bulldogs boast one of the nation’s most intimidating paint presences.
But if you were designing an offense to give Mississippi State trouble, it would look a lot like the Ducks, who spread the court with three capable 3-point shooters around pick-and-rolls involving center Ruthy Hebard.
Oregon will force McCowan to defend multiple ball screens each possession, taking her away from the paint and creating opportunities for the Ducks’ ball handlers to drive. If the Bulldogs get back to the Final Four for a third straight year, they’ll have earned it defensively.
Voepel: Iowa is going to face a big challenge in Baylor. It’s pretty scary when a team that has Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox won its Sweet 16 game with someone else scoring 25 points. That was Didi Richards, who averages just 6.2 points and is known much more for her prowess as a defensive stopper on the perimeter.
But Richards is super-quick and can make layups like nobody’s business if you’re so busy worrying about the other Lady Bears that you give her a lane to the basket.
Baylor is the best offensive team that the Hawkeyes have faced since they played at Notre Dame on Nov. 29, and lost 105-71.
Which team faces the biggest offensive challenge of the Elite Eight:
Voepel: The Stanford-Missouri State semifinal in Chicago was an offensive stink bomb, with both teams shooting 25 percent. The Cardinal won 55-46, which was Stanford’s second-lowest point total of the season, behind only its 88-48 loss to Oregon. It was the fewest points of any team to advance to the Elite Eight, and there’s no way that kind of offense will challenge Notre Dame in Monday’s regional final.
The good news for the Cardinal is they’re capable of much better, but their season scoring average of 74.3 is still far less than Notre Dame’s 89.1. Stanford will have to play both one of its best offensive and best defensive games of the season versus the Irish.