N.C.A.A. Final Four: Live Updates From San Antonio

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Good reminder here that Haley Jones was the No. 1 recruit in last year’s freshman class. She has 9 of Stanford’s 13 points.

The bands might not be present, but they’re playing the South Carolina fight song at the Alamodome after the Gamecocks forced four Stanford turnovers in the first five minutes. South Carolina leads, 15-6, with a little more than four minutes left in the first quarter.

Relatives of Stanford players in downtown San Antonio the day before the Final Four.
Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

Parents of Stanford women’s basketball team are excited to see them play. They are just as excited for this N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament to finish.

“As soon as the game is over and she gets on the bus and goes to the hotel, we’ll be right behind the bus,” Mike Williams, the father of senior guard Kiana Williams, said in an interview this week.

The team spent nine weeks of its season away from its Northern California campus, at points playing “home games” in a beach town about 45 miles away, while the county where the university is in prohibited contact sports. Parents were unable to come into contact with their children or see them play from the stands for much of the season.

“You forget what it is like to make eye contact with her as she’s coming off the court going into the locker room,” Michelle Bain-Brink, the mother of freshman forward Cameron Brink, said.

Bain-Brink had not seen her daughter play for the Cardinal until the Pac-12 tournament, which Stanford won, last month in Las Vegas.

Back in the stands, the 300-person block of Stanford’s family and friends are taking their job of cheering very seriously, opening up the national semifinal game between Stanford and South Carolina with cheers of “Let’s go Stanford.”

It is Stanford’s second competition today — just a few hours before coming to the Alamodome, the Cardinal crowned its table tennis tournament champion.

Kiana Williams of Stanford warming up before the game.
Credit…Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The women’s Final Four games will be broadcast on ESPN and can be streamed on the ESPN app. Here is a rundown of the schedule:

  • Stanford vs. South Carolina, 6 p.m. Eastern

  • UConn vs. Arizona, 9:30 p.m. Eastern

  • Final, 6 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.

Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, who played for UConn, was in San Antonio training for U.S.A. Basketball during the Final Four.
Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Many of the usual Final Four festivities and events aren’t taking place this year in San Antonio because of the coronavirus pandemic. In spite of that, the city is still hosting plenty of the best women’s basketball players in the nation — even beyond those competing for an N.C.A.A. title.

U.S.A. Basketball scheduled its last 3×3 and U.S. national team camps before the W.N.B.A. season begins in May to coincide with the final weekend of N.C.A.A. tournament competition in San Antonio. Plenty of the universities still competing for the college championship have esteemed alumni who spent the past few days practicing ahead of the Tokyo Olympics later this year.

Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Stefanie Dolson and Tina Charles played for UConn. South Carolina had A’ja Wilson Nneka Ogwumike went to Stanford. South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is also the Coach of the U.S. national team, but she has left training camp to her assistants while she focuses on leading the Gamecocks deeper in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Some of the players are likely to remain on hand to cheer on their teams — and to scope out their future competition. “Obviously her quickness is her biggest asset, her ability to go anywhere at any time,” Bird said this week of Arizona senior Aari McDonald, a possible top-10 pick in the upcoming W.N.B.A. draft. “Her kind of game translates to the W.N.B.A. well so it will be fun to watch her go against Connecticut.”

Laeticia Amihere, No 15, blocks a shot by Anaya Boyd of Georgia Tech during the round of 16.
Credit…Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

A connecting trait for these Final Four teams is depth as well as the ability to contain opposing depth.

The teams in San Antonio are relying on their benches to win games late, or to eat enough reliable minutes for stars to take over in the fourth quarter. Even as top seeded teams like Stanford or UConn have been in close games early, depth has been a difference maker.

Starters have sometimes benefited, too — if a team can rely on bench players to stay in games, that allows more room for starters to carry their teams if needed late in games.

“The bench, it’s a big part of who we are, and being able to go deep in our bench is going to be so important, especially down the stretch right now,” said South Carolina’s Laeticia Amihere, who had 10 points and 8 rebounds while playing 17 minutes in her team’s regional final rout of Texas on Tuesday.

Amihere, who plays with a heavy knee brace as she has had to recover from two ligament tears, is like a secret weapon for the Gamecocks off the bench.

“Especially in a tournament right now, we got to come up big,” she said. “We’ve got to come up big because the bench is a big part of who we are. Being able to go deep in our bench is going to be so important, especially down the stretch right now.”

When Stanford trailed 38-26 at halftime to Louisville in the round of 8, it turned to its bench in the second half. Ashten Prechtel scored 16 points in 16 minutes, replacing starter Kiana Williams who went just 1 for 11 in the opening 20 minutes. The Cardinal went on a 17-2 run in the third quarter behind the energy Pretchel brought.

“It probably looks like I should have put her in in the first half,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Maybe watching the first half she understood what to do better. Obviously you can’t expect someone to go 6-for-6 every game but I liked how she rebounded, she finished inside. She looked very confident.”

“Having depth like that, where everyone is excited for the other players, is really important,” she added.

Smaller bench contributions have also made a difference. In Arizona’s round of 8 win over Indiana, the Wildcats bench outscored their counterparts, 8-0 to help in the 66-53 win.

That contribution helps especially when Aari McDonald has dominated for Arizona with 64 points in her last two games.

UConn has been the outlier among the final quartet in this tournament, even though it has talented players throughout its roster. In its round of 8 win over Baylor, only one bench player got into the lineup.

Coach Dawn Staley of South Carolina cuts down the net after reaching the Final Four.
Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

A few years into Dawn Staley’s tenure as the head coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team, ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck decided to give her a small gift. Peck, a former college and W.N.B.A. coach, had noticed the care with which Staley spoke to each player on her team, taking time to check in with each individually while they stretched before practice. She was impressed by how seriously Staley took her responsibility to her players, how she called herself a “dream merchant.”

So before a Gamecocks game that Peck was commentating, Peck handed Staley a small piece of the net that she had cut down when she became the first Black coach to win a women’s basketball national championship, with Purdue in 1999.

“I saw that she had something special, and had the opportunity to be the next one,” Peck said. A couple years later, Staley became the second Black head coach to win a title, and pulled that piece of net out of her wallet to show reporters at the postgame news conference.

As of this week, seven Black coaches have led teams to the women’s Final Four. Two of those seven, Staley and Arizona Coach Adia Barnes, are in this Final Four. It will be the first time that two Black head coaches will compete in the same year in the national semifinals.

“Our history here in women’s basketball is filled with so many Black bodies that for me, for this to happen in 2021 is long overdue,” Staley said after her team beat No. 6 seed Texas on Tuesday.

According to the 2019-2020 edition of the Race and Gender Report Card, an annual demographic survey of athletes and coaches conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, 19.3 percent of head coaches were Black or African-American. “This data stands in stark contrast to the 41.9 percent of student-athletes playing Division I women’s basketball who were Black or African-American,” the report said.

Nearly 78 percent of the coaches in Division I women’s basketball were white, the report said.

“If you look around the country at the Power 5 head coaching jobs, there is no representation,” Barnes said. “Two years ago, I was the only Black coach in the Pac-12 on the men’s or women’s side. And then Charmin Smith came into the league and there were two of us — and our sport’s predominantly Black,” she added, referring to the University of California, Berkeley head coach.

Both Barnes and Peck said Black coaches who would like to coach are often not given opportunities to develop as assistants, sufficient support for their own teams or leeway if they make a mistake.

“The advice from people that cared about me was ‘Don’t take that job, because you won’t get another chance,’” Barnes said. “But white men get the opportunities again, all the time.”

She said she has had several mentors within the game, including Staley, who she said texts her regularly. “She’s been a tremendous supporter of me and what I do,” Barnes said. “Like she’s across the country, but we want each other to be successful. I think we don’t have enough of that.”

Staley eventually gave Peck back the net piece from the 1999 championship. Peck said that when Staley returned the piece, she said: “Now, we have to decide who we’ll give the next ones to.”

Lacie Hull and the rest of the Stanford Cardinal shoot 3-pointers often.
Credit…Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The Cardinal looked as if they might be upset through much of their round-of-8 matchup against the No. 2 seed Louisville, and they betrayed one of the few weaknesses in an offense with a lot of powerful scorers.

Stanford needs to hit 3-point shots to win.

The Cardinal hit one 3-pointer in the first half against Louisville, and went into halftime down by 12 points. Stanford hit six in the second half — still low, compared with the 14 3-pointers per game it averaged in the first three games of the tournament, but enough to push through to the next level.

South Carolina doesn’t shoot much from behind the 3-point line, but it does defend well against long-distance shots, allowing opponents to hit just 27 percent of their 3s.

The challenge with Stanford is that most of its players can hit a 3 when needed. But if South Carolina can force those shooters to the rim, where they will be greeted by Boston and her prodigious blocking skills, the Gamecocks will have a very real chance of quieting one of the most prolific offenses in the tournament so far.

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston will be part of an intriguing battle of bigs when her team meets Stanford on Friday night in the Final Four.
Credit…Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

South Carolina and Stanford have talented young post players with very different skill sets. Aliyah Boston, the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-5 sophomore, is listed as a forward but plays more like a traditional center, dominant around the basket and on the glass, with the size and strength — as well as the deft footwork — to overpower opponents. The fact that she averages a double-double is almost a footnote to the ways in which she broadly shapes South Carolina’s game.

“When she’s on the floor, you’ve got to guard her with a player and probably a half a player,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. “So she afforded us opportunities.”

Stanford’s Cameron Brink, a 6-foot-4 freshman, doesn’t have the same ability to muscle her fellow post players, but she can score quickly in transition and — occasionally — shoot from behind the arc. Brink has already helped the Cardinal with her volleyball-trained vertical leap, which allows her to block and rebound with ease. She is not yet dominant enough to attract double teams in the way that Boston tends to, but her range on the floor allows her to spread defenses and open up lanes for the Cardinal’s smaller guards, like senior Kiana Williams.

The Boston-Brink face-off calls to mind considerations at other levels of basketball, where coaches mull whether a traditional big should serve as an offense’s centerpiece or if flexibility at the position is more important.

Paige Bueckers celebrates getting into the Final Four.
Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

UConn’s Bueckers was voted the Associated Press Player of the Year, and Arizona’s McDonald is the Pac-12 Player of the Year. This game will challenge them to take over and will also test the supporting players on each team. Connecticut’s starters, most of whom have at least some previous tournament experience, will have an advantage in that regard.

“They’re a confident team because it’s charted territory. It’s uncharted for us. This is something they’re used to,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said. “But we’ve peaked at the right time, and to win a championship, you just have to beat that team one time.”

McDonald has played her best basketball of the season during the tournament, carrying the Wildcats past tough teams. She scored more than 30 points in each of her past two tournament games while averaging nearly 60 percent shooting. She is fast and a skillful ballhandler with a craftiness that helps her find ways to score from anywhere on the court, around almost anyone assigned to defend her.

Bueckers has not exhibited newcomer jitters — she was the first freshman to win the top player award — as she played her signature smooth, somewhat unassuming game from the start of the tournament. Her preternatural court vision allows her to set up the other shooters on her team, including Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook. They might be the ones with the gaudy stat lines on Friday night, if Arizona decides to focus its defense on shutting down Bueckers.

Aari McDonald of Arizona has shot nearly 60 percent while scoring more than 30 points in each of her past two tournament games.
Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

The Connecticut and Arizona defenses are two of the best in the nation at disrupting possessions and nabbing the ball. The Huskies get steals on 12 percent of their opponents’ plays, and the Wildcats create takeaways on 13 percent.

Arizona also pressures teams into turning over the ball on more than one-fifth of their possessions, according to Her Hoop Stats. In the round of 16, Arizona stifled Texas A&M by playing a full-court press over and over, leaving the Aggies so uncertain that they turned the ball over 19 times.

McDonald’s handsy play and 2.7 steals per game earned her a share of the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors, but forward Sam Thomas is right behind her with an average of 2.4 takeaways. The Wildcats’ approach is to agitate, not dominate, their opponents. They will need to be as obnoxious as possible against UConn’s streamlined offense, which has been one of the highest scoring in the nation.

UConn’s defense will probably focus on McDonald, since containing her is the key to stopping Arizona. The problem is that few people have managed to do it this season, because to lower her shooting percentage you have to keep up with her first.

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