Five lasting impressions from the Final Four

A'ja Wilson and the South Carolina Gamecocks hoist the NCAA Division I National Championship trophy. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.
A’ja Wilson and the South Carolina Gamecocks hoist the NCAA Division I National Championship trophy. Photo by Robert L. Franklin.

You can do it if you work hard enough, and if you believe

The American Dream is alive and well, thanks to the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Inspired by a 60-point loss to UConn in last year’s NCAA Tournament, they had a mission this season. The team embarked on a brutal road schedule, went undefeated for two and a half months, and upset opponents in the Tournament en route to an historic upending of the Huskies on the game’s biggest stage. They believed in themselves when no one else did. They were courageous and played completely devoid of fear in the semifinal. As a result they’ve become an inspiration to many, have vaulted their program to elite status, and have etched their place in history.

Geno Auriemma knows how to lose extremely graciously

It had been a few years since UConn coach Geno Auriemma and his team had actually lost a game, but Auriemma handled it like a professional.

“The excitement that was in Mississippi State’s locker room, we’ve been there. We’ve been there lots of times. We’ve experienced that probably more times than normal,” he said in the post-game press conference.

“Today, you know, they deserved to win. They beat us. We had our chances. I mean, they beat us. They took us away from the things that we like to do. We didn’t have the kind of maturity that you need to win at this level at this time of the year.”

“Some of our young guys got a little bit ahead of themselves. That’s okay. We went in the locker room and we experienced some of the things that a bunch of other kids have experienced against us.”

You can do it if you don’t have all of your personnel

When the announcement was made that starting South Carolina center Alaina Coates was out for the Tournament with injury, many wrote the Gamecocks off as goners. But coach Dawn Staley said, “I think we’ll be OK.”

That proved to be an understatement, as South Carolina guards stepped up and filled in all the blanks – and then some – for the team all the way through the playoff rounds. Motivation to avenge last year’s early Tournament loss, to win a title for Staley and the complete cohesion of the team proved to be a winning formula for the trophy hoisting that went down on Sunday.

Every possession and every rebound counts

It’s not just an old adage: it’s the truth. Against UConn, Mississippi State showed the basketball world how it should be done if a team hopes to beat a formidable opponent. They matched the Huskies move for move, basket for basket, rebound for rebound. Watching them never let up for even one possession or one rebound was a reminder of how often most teams do. Even one missed free board or free throw can cost a game because it starts a team-wide domino effect of taking a possession off, which leads to another and another.

“We’ve got to learn how to play 40 minutes,” said every coach, ever.

There are fewer true statements in basketball.

The return of the Friday-Sunday format is a winner……if the bugs are ironed out

The Final Four returned to the Friday-Sunday schedule this year for the first time since 2002, and it seems to have been a success. Attendance was up and the Championship game was sold out, likely because it is easier for fans to make a weekend trip than it is for them to sojourn for a Sunday-Tuesday schedule. TV viewership was up too.

But there were no open practices Thursday, as there have traditionally been the day before the semifinals. The WBCA All-American Team was announced on a stage in Tourney Town just before dark Saturday in an area where only ticketed concert-goers had access to be. The WBCA had put out an awkward press release for attending media that there was no other place to have the ceremony, but it was still disappointing.

There needs to be a way to accommodate all events for a complete Final Four.