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.

Friday, March 31, 2017

NCAA Women's Final Four: It's UConn's to Lose

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

 While nobody expected Connecticut to be perfect, everybody anticipated that it would be participating in its 10th consecutive Final Four.

 UConn’s appearance on television during the last weekend of the women’s basketball season has become an annual rite of spring like the cherry blossoms blooming in Washington, D.C.

 Connecticut has been to the Final Four so often that it should be forced to pay some type of rent, taxes and fees. 

 With a difficult non-conference slate, many, including myself, expected UConn to have a few losses.

 We all figured that the Huskies would grow stronger as the season progressed and develop into the type of team that was more than capable of winning a national championship. 

 The March version of UConn isn’t really that big of a surprise to anybody. 

 The Huskies bring a 111-game winning streak into this weekend’s women’s basketball party in Dallas in which they are the overwhelming favorites to add to their championship collection of NCAA trophies. 

UConn’s awesome accomplishments, dominance and excellence kind of overshadows the three other terrific programs that are also in Dallas: Mississippi State, Stanford and South Carolina.

 Yet, here the Huskies are, larger than life, two wins removed from their fifth consecutive national championship and 12th overall.

 It has just been mind-boggling watching UConn dispatch its opponents by 33.2 points per game with the precision of a seasoned surgeon.

 The million dollar question is which one of the three other teams in the Final Four can beat UConn. 
Actually all three have a shot to end the Huskies reign this weekend. 

This is the 10th time and first since 2008, that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) has had two teams in the Final Four. Stanford has made its own history against UConn in recent years.

 This is a great quartet of schools in Dallas with tremendously coached squads and some game-changers. 

While UConn has been to 10 straight Final Fours, Stanford is back for the seventh time in that same span. 
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer knows a thing or two about playing during the last weekend of 
the women’s basketball season.

 After all, she’s a legend, her status cemented when she became the third Division I basketball coach to win 1,000 games when Stanford beat USC 58-42 on Feb. 3. 

 VanDerveer owns a 1,012-230 career record and has more wins than 341 of the country's 349 Division I programs, which is crazy.

 The Cardinal are in its 13th Final Four in program history.

 A final between Stanford and UConn would be the ultimate from the standpoint of the Karlie (Stanford) and Katie Lou (UConn) Samuelson sisters competing against each other and the 
VanDerveer factor.

Stanford, as many of you know, was the last team to beat UConn in 2014. The Cardinal also terminated the Huskies’ 90-game winning streak in 2010. Of course, that streak seems like nothing considering that this current UConn streak has extended that run of excellence by 21 games. 

 So VanDerveer, who coached the 1996 USA Olympic Team, has some type of magical formula against the Huskies.

 Of course, both of those Stanford victories were in Palo Alto. Speaking of wizardry, the Cardinal has made a nice habit of rallying from second-half deficits in this tournament. 

 Stanford erased a nine-point deficit to beat Texas in the Sweet 16 and erased a 16-point deficit to edge Notre Dame in an Elite 8 Classic.

 The Cardinal  has been down by at least seven points and come back to win six times this season, including in five of its last six games. Stanford faced a fourth quarter deficit to 15th-seeded New Mexico State before pulling away late.

 While VanDerveer has been a semi-thorn in UConn’s side, her Stanford teams gave current South Carolina coach Dawn Staley nightmares.

 VanDerveer’s Stanford squads beat the Staley-as-a-player Virginia teams en route to winning the 1990 and 1992 national titles. 

Staley, who is 0-5 against VanDerveer-coached squads, has done an awesome job turning South Carolina into a giant and one of the elite programs since she’s taken over.
The Gamecocks are in the Final Four for the second time in three seasons after not reaching that level in the first 37 seasons of the NCAA Tournament.

 What Staley has done this tournament has been remarkable considering the Gamecocks have been without their senior leader Alana Coates, the heart-and-soul of the team.

 South Carolina had a second round scare against Arizona State before coasting past Cinderella Quinnipiac and hanging on to beat Florida State.

 The difference for the Gamecocks lately has been the improved and elite quality performances of Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray, Tyasha Harris, and Bianca Cuevas-Moore. 

They have contributed consistent shooting, defense and toughness to help A’ja Wilson dominate the paint. Even when Wilson was in foul trouble against Florida State, the Gamecocks didn’t miss a beat. 

 This brings us to Mississippi State and head coach Vic Schaefer, who has been here as an assistant coach on Texas A&M's 2011 national championship team.

 If there were any doubts about the Bulldogs place among the elite, they resoundingly answered them by earning their trip to Dallas.

 Some thought the Bulldogs were a one-year wonder after getting to the Sweet 16 and getting steamrolled by 60 points to UConn last season, but all they have done is won consistently this season.

 The Bulldogs, winners of a school-record 33 games, are arguably the feel-good story among the Final Four participants especially after watching Morgan William’s exquisite 41-point masterpiece against Baylor.

 Though she’s listed generously at 5 feet, 5 inches, William was a tower of power, scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. It was a fearless performance by the diminutive William.

 Her tenacity and perseverance was greater than she'd ever let on against Baylor seemingly delivering clutch shots whenever they were needed. 
She has served as an example, and an inspiration, to her teammates as they pursue their dreams. 

Victoria Vivians’ relentless game is smooth and special.

 For a comparison of the UConn-Mississippi State matchup. Think UNLV-Duke men’s basketball. In 1990, UNLV beat Duke 103-73 in the national title game. One year later, an undefeated UNLV juggernaut wasn’t as fortunate as the Blue Devils claimed a 79-77 win in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. 
Of course this all comes back to UConn, right? 
“We know we have a tremendous challenge in front of us going against a team that's the best program in the history of the game, coached by the best coach in the history of the game, men or women,” Schaefer said during Thursday’s press conference. 

“We know what's in front of us. We've had to deal with it before. Obviously we dealt with it last year, and it wasn't a real good experience. But I think we've grown from that day and we've learned from it. 

"We're going to do our very best to play a really good ballgame tomorrow night. Again, these kids have earned the right to be here, make no mistake about it. I'm just proud to be their coach.”

 The Huskies went through the Pac-12 to win the Bridgeport regional. Now, an SEC foe stands in its way. The Huskies have the pieces to meet every challenge it will encounter this weekend. Mississippi State will be a formidable hurdle for the Huskies to conquer. 

 This won’t be a 60-point beatdown. 

The Bulldogs won’t be in awe of the Huskies this time around. Although this is new territory for Mississippi State, it will hang around for a while.  

Ultimately, the Huskies guards are slightly bigger, quicker and better than Baylor’s crew. That will make a difference as UConn pulls away during the second half to comfortably cruise into the title game. 

 Winners of nine consecutive games, South Carolina has turned into a different team in March out of necessity. 

The Gamecocks have multiple scoring threats from all over the court and play a more free-flowing style that takes advantage of their quickness and athleticism. 

Stanford has been a tough out and watching it rally against a Notre Dame squad that appeared to be clicking on all cylinders was enough to wonder if something is at work for the Cardinal.

 In the end look for the Huskies to find a way to survive one final VanDerveer-led assault from her squad to win their fifth consecutive national title. 

It won’t be easy and fun to watch, but UConn will find a way.