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.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Women’s Final Four Offers a Fearsome Four


This is the ultimate fearsome foursome. 

It should be a fun time in Columbus this weekend when the all No. 1 seed NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four commences with Connecticut, Mississippi State, Louisville, and Notre Dame, the Mount Rushmore of the 2017-18 season.

They are a combined 141-6. That alone should make for spellbinding and awesome hoops. In one corner, there’s two dynamite individual stars going head-to-head in Louisville’s Asia Durr and Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan. Though they won’t be guarding each other, they are the headliners on their respective star-studded teams, though the Bulldogs’ Victoria Vivians deserves equal billing among the Southeastern Conference representatives.

In the other corner, the sport’s best rivalry continues between UConn and Notre Dame. 

This will be the 48th meeting between the former Big East rivals. Hopefully head coaches and Philadelphians Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw play nice with each other this week. This is the millennium version of those epic UConn-Tennessee battles in the late 90s and early 2000s. 

While this will be the first time Louisville and Mississippi State are meeting on the hardwood, the programs are forever bonded because they have pulled off two of the three biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Two improbable triumphs. Two shining moments for women’s basketball.

In 2013, Louisville toppled undefeated and prohibitive title favorite Baylor in a Sweet 16 game in Oklahoma City. The Bears, you may recall, were led by Brittney Griner, who was an unstoppable force of nature during her sterling collegiate career. Of course, everybody remembers where they were last year when Mississippi State’s Morgan William made the game-winner at the buzzer in overtime  and simultaneously ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak in Dallas.

The Bulldogs lost in last year’s championship contest to SEC rival South Carolina. They are motivated to return and add the missing piece to an amazing three-year run under head coach Vic Schaefer. Motivated by last season’s ending, Mississippi State tore through its schedule and posted an undefeated SEC regular season.

The first semifinal will be fascinating as both teams are balanced and have obnoxious defenders that have made life miserable for opponents. While Durr and McCowan garner most of the headlines, both Louisville and Mississippi State feature game changing players in Myisha Hines-Allen (16 double doubles) and Victoria Vivians, respectively. Those two are special to watch. 

The last two times Louisville advanced to the Final Four, it lost to UConn in the championship. 

UConn is always around. This is the Huskies’ 11th consecutive trip to the national semifinals and 19th overall. Three of UConn’s losses to Notre Dame have come in the Final Four. In 2014, these heavyweights played in the first national championship game between teams with perfect records. It was a meaningful moment for women’s basketball. It didn’t matter that UConn rolled that night in Nashville.

UConn has played with ruthless and relentless efficiency all season. Its offense is literally poetry in motion because of the numerous scoring threats from every corner. 

Gabby Williams is special and can do anything she wants on the floor. Kia Nurse just knows when a big shot is needed. Katie Lou Samuelson shots are often on target that you’d think she was a robot. Crystal Dangerfield is gifted and Naphessa Collier is fearless and fantastic. Then, the Huskies bring in Azura Stevens, who has been dynamic throughout the season. 

Yet, the Fighting Irish before most of their injuries had the Huskies on the ropes in the Dec. 3 meeting this season in Hartford. It was one of three losses for Notre Dame with the other two coming to Louisville.

The Huskies trailed 65-54 early in the fourth quarter before scoring 21 of the next 26 points to win 80-71. Marina Mabrey, who has assumed most of the point guard duties after the season-ending injury to Lili Thompson, fired in 21 points against UConn in that December meeting.

The UConn-Notre Dame game should be full of motion, back-screens and passes by the bushel.

This Final Four showcase has the potential to be memorable. There will be three close and exciting contests in Nationwide Arena. UConn will be pushed and challenged as it should be. Louisville, Mississippi State and Notre Dame aren’t in Columbus because it won a trip in a raffle. Each squad has a legit chance to win the national championship. 

This weekend will be a fantastic finish to a memorable tournament that saw two Mid-American Conference (MAC) squads in Buffalo and Central Michigan advance to the Sweet 16 and Villanova win its tournament opener before being ousted by Notre Dame. 

It’s always sad when outstanding careers end and it’s hard to say goodbye to A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Mitchell and Lexie Brown, three transcendent talents that have elevated the sport to another level. This is only the beginning for those three talented ladies that provided numerous indelible moments. 

No surprise here, but UConn adds to its national title collection with a lot more effort than in previous Final Four appearances. They’ll need a second half rally to edge Mississippi State in a final that will be one for the ages.