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.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Rob Knox on WF4: Semifinals Brought a Night of Competition Unlike Any in NCAAW History




In lifting women’s basketball to a new level of amazing, Mississippi State, Louisville, Connecticut and Notre Dame delivered unforgettable performances on the sport’s biggest stage Friday night that had the sellout crowd of 19,564 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, along with a worldwide television viewers captivated.  


Fans, including Kobe Bryant, should have been forced to pay upon exiting out after witnessing a pair of overtime epics for the ages. This was the first Final Four in which both games were extended beyond regulation to determine the outcome.


When Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale’s baseline shot swished through the net with one second remaining shortly before midnight, it provided the perfect exclamation point to nearly five hours of beautifully breathtaking basketball dripping with drama.


As Ogunbowale’s shot hung in the air, time – and heartbeats – froze.


Both games had everything. 


Clutch shots were made, records were set and late deficits were erased. 

Man to man defense was out. Passionate soul-to-soul defense was in. 

Each squad displayed every championship quality that made them special this season: grit, character, heart and resilience. 


Going into the weekend, everybody knew there was a possibility of witnessing a pair of a quality games that could be decided late because the Final Four featured all four No. 1 seeds, and each team among the top five ranked entirely or almost all the way till Selection Night. 


But this? 


Nobody in their wildest dreams could have predicted that this would be arguably one of the greatest evenings in the women’s basketball history.


“This Final Four had a special group of women who are very competitive and different personalities going against each other,” Notre Dame junior guard Marina Mabrey said during Saturday’s media availability. “I’m just happy I can be a part of so many great players out there. Anybody who played in the Final Four last night got better as a player and their character grew.”


Each game was swollen with suspense. 

Fans were treated with the option of their preferred style that elevated each game. 

If you wanted a defensive struggle, then Louisville-Mississippi State fit the bill. In combining to score a Final Four single game record 180 points, UConn and Notre Dame were for the fans who love lots of offense. 


Louisville led by seven early in the fourth quarter, trailed with less than three minutes remaining and led again by three late in the game until Mississippi State’s Roshaunda Johnson made the biggest shot of the evening – a game tying 3-pointer that ultimately forced overtime. The Cardinals had two clean chances to capture the game in regulation, but layups rimmed out.


“It was a blessing,” Johnson said of her game-tying shot. “I hit the shot on the biggest stage I could be on right now and I feel like that was the biggest shot that I have taken. I did what I had to do to get my team into overtime because I knew we didn’t want our season to be over in that moment.”


In leading Mississippi State, the physically elegant Victoria Vivans, who combines textbook fundamentals with mesmerizing flair, scored a game high 25 points before fouling out. 

Teaira McCowan had a double-double of 21 points and a Final Four record 25 rebounds for Mississippi State. 

Asia Durr was special as usual in scoring 18 points to lead the Cardinals.


That game alone – featuring 15 lead changes -- was worthy of classic status. 


Instead, it was reduced to the undercard, an appetizer for what followed. 


The game’s greatest rivalry churned out another classic in which the Fighting Irish edged the Huskies, 91-89, in overtime. This was the second consecutive year that an undefeated UConn squad has lost in overtime on a final shot in the Final Four.


The Huskies have lost seven consecutive overtime games. 

However, that’s not the wow statistic. 

UConn’s last regulation loss was in 2013 to Notre Dame at the buzzer in Hartford in the Big East tournament championship game.


Notre Dame holds a 4-3 edge over UConn in Final Four matchups with the last two matchups being decided in overtime. 


“It opened people’s eyes,” Mabrey said of Friday’s semifinals. 

“It showed the whole world that we can play. We can be entertaining. UConn isn’t bad for women’s basketball. They set the bar really high. They’re motivating. People dream of beating UConn. I don’t really think that’s our mentality, but they have the whole world rooting against them. That has to be pretty tough to play like that. Women’s basketball grew last night.”


Jackie Young enjoyed a coming out party on the sport’s biggest stage with 32 points, the seventh highest point total in women’s Final Four history. 

Young and Ogunbowale combined for 64.8 percent of the Fighting Irish’s point total. Whenever UConn threatened to pull away, they responded especially after absorbing a 14-0 burst late in the first half.


The Huskies displayed mental toughness several times especially late in regulation and overtime when they rallied from five-point deficits to tie the game. 

Napheesa Collier had 24 points to lead the Huskies, who got a double-double from Gabby Williams (12 points, 10 rebounds) in her final game along with 19 points from Azura Stevens.


“There were huge people tweeting about the game and getting other people involved,” Mabrey said. “Just to know that Notre Dame versus UConn was number one trending on Twitter in the world, it just feels good to get recognition for all the hard work we’ve put in. 

“Notre Dame is not afraid of UConn. It’s become a rivalry. I think it makes the game fun for women’s basketball. I love that about us and UConn. We can get really competitive and bring the game to a higher level.”


The individual efforts of the superstars and role players along with the high intensity levels that these games were played at is what stamps this Final Four as the best ever in women’s basketball. 


This was better than a Broadway show. 


These were hardwood masterpieces that won’t ever be replicated.


We were blessed to be able to share the excitement. There were no losers. Louisville and UConn just ran out of time. 


Meanwhile, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, the WBCA Coach of the Year, had a front row seat to watch the brilliance between Notre Dame and UConn and put the evening into perspective.


“You're talking about two great coaches in our industry who have had so much success, and great players out there making plays left and right,” Schaefer said. “And it just makes you proud to be a part of this industry. I think last night was great for our game. 


“You had two outstanding games played by four outstanding teams. (UConn-Notre Dame) was a heck of a game, great for our game. And one team made one more play than the other. That's what it came down to. One play.”


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