Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Guru's NCAA: UConn? Yes and Oregon Meet in a Battle of Dueling Cinderellas

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – For different reasons the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Bridgeport Regional championship Monday night at Webster Bank Arena is a tale of dueling Cinderellas fighting to land a spot in this weekend’s Women’s Final Four in Dallas.

One has a mean competitive veneer and managed to use the Cinderella brand because for the first time in a long time way back in the fall instead of being everybody’s smart money favorite to win it all, Connecticut, with the departure of who became the 1-2-3 overall picks in the WNBA draft, headed by the super talented Breanna Stewart, was perceived to be headed for some re-tooling.

But almost from the outset, the players who were in the shadows such as sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson, juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, and senior Saniya Chong have been a committee with each having their special moments to accelerate the Huskies’ acclaim, not diminish it.

Consider that this unit heads into Monday night’s showdown unbeaten on the season at 35-0 and extending a run of perfection to 110-0 to shatter UConn’s previous NCAA streak of 90.

Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma, widely praised for doing his best job this season considering the roster, has now tied the late Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt with 112 overall NCAA tourney wins, which transforms to his record alone with one more triumph Monday night.

Tossing aside UConn’s ongoing perfect domination of the American Athletic Conference since its formation four years ago out of the rubble of the old Big East, the Huskies have also knocked down such national stalwarts as Florida State, Baylor, Ohio State, South Carolina, DePaul, Maryland, Texas and Notre Dame this season.

Auriemma has called this round in the past the most difficult in the tournament, even more than any of the two final steps under the Women’s Final Four, yet despite some thrillers over the years UConn brings a 12-game win streak in Elite Eight games and a 17-5 record overall playing at this round on the way to a men’s or women’s NCAA record 11 championships, including the last four in a row.

Asked at Sunday’s press conference who might be the deal maker this game on Monday, Auriemma was stumped in naming the likely star of stars to get UConn to the American Airlines Arena for Friday night’s semifinal games.

“If you had asked me last year, it would be easy for the most part,” Auriemma said. “I’ve got three guys to pick, for the most part, and one you know, for the most part.

“But I don’t know, this year it’s been kind of different. I mean, it’s like Napheesa has been pretty constant. Lou has been pretty constant, Kia has been amazing this tournament.
“And then Gabby is just – some games she’s the complete difference maker, in spite of all the other players. And then (Saturday against UCLA) it was Saniya,” he observed.

“I really don’t know. I wish I could tell you tell you, yeah, these two guys are. But I’m watching Notre Dame play Stanford and the kid from Notre Dame has 21 in the first half.

“You want somebody tomorrow to go, yeah, I got this. Whether it’s on our team or their team, it’s probably going to happen. But as to who it’s going to be, I don’t know. I don’t know. Hopefully, it’s not just one. It’s a couple of them.”

That brings us to the other Cinderella, or one might say, the true Cinderella.

That would be 10th-seeded Oregon (23-13), rebuilt in three seasons by former Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves to making the Ducks advance to their first Sweet 16 and now Elite Eight.

Oddly, a year ago, another Pac-12 squad Washington made it to its first Final Four on a run shaking off a challenge from Ivy League champion Penn to get going on a four-hop sweep  to Indianapolis.

This time, Oregon took the first round stopping another Philly Big Five team in seventh-seeded Temple, 71-70, at the last second, at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, then beat the second-seeded Blue Devils in a true road game to get here and on Saturday stunned third-seeded Maryland to get to Monday night hours before the Oregon men’s team advanced to its first Final Four.

In a change of pace enhancing the Cinderella from the Northwest, the Ducks are doing it with three freshmen in the starting lineup highlighted by the sensational Sabrina Ionescu.

Playing UConn, the gold standard in women’s basketball, has been the dream of many a hoopster besides the ones who look to the future to actually one day wear the uniform of the Blue and White.

Oregon on this path has become an unknown for the Huskies and the Ducks embrace the concept of going after what would be one of the all-time upsets and coming in a tournament that already has several major ones.

“Yeah, what an exciting opportunity,” said junior Lexi Bando. “You know, for any athlete or competitor, this is what you live for. You want to play at the biggest stage against the best team. Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.”

Added Ionescu, “Yeah, we’re excited for this opportunity, especially as a young group. I think it’s going to test us in many ways, and I think we’re just excited to see where we stand and get a shot at playing against the No. 1 team in the country.”

She has no problem describing the components that keep UConn at the top, especially this season.

“Well, their culture. They recruit great kids and kids that want to compete and kids that want to win. They don’t really have any knuckleheads on their team,” Ionescu noted.

“So I mean they have great culture, great kids, and Geno is one of a kind, so I think that definitely helps them in achieving what they have achieved thus far and what they’re going to achieve in the future.”

Even before taking the floor Monday night, the two teams considered the biggest threats to UConn going in when the bracket was announced two weeks ago have been taken down.

Just one day after Oregon eliminated Maryland on Sunday night second-seeded Mississippi State made it four straight times that Baylor has been unable to get past the Elite Eight.

Notre Dame blew a 16-point lead earlier Sunday and fell by a point to Stanford. The winner of Monday’s game will get Mississippi State in Dallas Friday night in the semifinals while Stanford sees the winner of Monday night’s Stockton Regional final between South Carolina and Florida State.

It’s possible that the championship will come down to a coaching duel of Philadelphians between Auriemma and his former Olympic assistant and now successor Dawn Staley and her South Carolina squad.

But Auriemma’s only concern at the moment is playing an Oregon squad Monday night that is more of an unknown than Maryland would have been.

“It’s good that we’re playing a team that we’ve not played and don’t know much about,” Auriemma said. “So there’s a little bit of a difference preparing for them than it would be, say if it was Maryland or somebody else we had already played during the year.

“So that should be fun the next couple of days. We’re looking forward to it.”

Auriemma and Graves have their own mutual admiration society with Auriemma saying Graves was the right hire to get Oregon on the way to becoming in the national mix.

As for Graves, “It’s going to take our absolute best,”: he said of playing the Huskies. “There’s no doubt about it, and we’ve got to play for 40 minutes. You know watching them play and what Coach Auriemma has done is incredible. It truly is.

“I think they’ve set a standard that is good for our sport. You know, I hear people say all the time, oh, their dominance isn’t good for the sport. Really? I think it’s great for the sport. It makes us all accountable. We need to get better. We’ve got to improve our game.

“Listen, I’m going to go out and say, he’s the best coach in basketball, male, female, men’s basketball, women’s basketball. He’s just absolutely phenomenal, what he does, and how he motivates and coaches, and it’s going to be an honor to play tomorrow, and that being said, I hope I kick his butt.”

After UCLA went down to UConn on Saturday, Bruins coach Cori Close was asked what her Pac-12 rival Oregon folks need to do to have a shot Monday night playing the Huskies.

“The good news is March, you have to have great guard play,” Close said. “They have great guard play. Oregon has great guard play.

“They’re going to have to read the screen and roll really well, handle all those switches. There’s not a mismatch. A lot of times when people switch as well as they do, there’s a mismatch you can exploit. I think that’s going to be harder.

“They’re going to have to shoot the three well. They have to get enough stops that they can play up-tempo and shoot the three. I think they’re going to have to trade some threes and twos.

“Their kids, they don’t know they’re young. I’ve been watching them grow all year long. They just love playing together. It’s going to be a tall challenge, but I’m excited to watch them compete.”