As they get set to resume a longtime, intense rivalry in the national championship semifinals Friday, defending champion Stanford and UConn promise to keep things heated.
The teams are equally-matched on paper, which means individual outstanding performances are likely to determine who advances to the title game.
Both programs run disciplined motion offenses. Everyone is a good, or decent, shooter. Each team has shooters who can hit from outside (the Cardinal were better during the regular season then in the tournament), hit from mid-range, and score in the paint. Both programs have excellent team defenses, and the ability to score off defense in bunches.
The Huskies have guard depth. Stanford has post depth. Each program has players capable of performances that carry a team. But who that will be will become clear only during play.
Note the closeness at every level of the following pairs of players.
Haley Jones – Paige Bueckers
Cardinal guard Haley Jones and UConn’s Paige Bueckers immediately come to mind as impact players. Jones was the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s Final Four. She scored 35 points in this year’s Regionals, on 11-28 shooting.
Husky coach Geno Auriemma said Jones’ presence means his team will have to work harder.
“If you have Haley Jones on your team, you actually have three players, maybe three and a half, [to replace any of them],” he said. “When you’re able to put somebody like that on the floor, you shoot the ball better. You handle the ball better as a team. You pass the ball better as a team. You rebound the ball better as a team, all because of one person.”
“There are not very many Haley Joneses.”
Jones, an AP All-American, averages 12.9 points and 7.8 boards per game. She leads her team with 118 assists (3.7/g).
Bueckers was last season’s consensus Player of the Year and a first team All-American. She had 42 points on 17-32 shooting, including a remarkable 27 points in the Elite Eight.
Her performance in the overtimes of the NC State game on Monday were the kind of play Auriemma was talking about.
“Paige lives to be in the gym, loves to compete more than anything else, wants to compete every day,” he said. “And she thinks there’s never been a better basketball player than her, even though she’s humble enough to admit she makes mistakes.”
If not Jones or Bueckers, or both, who else? The matchups are fascinating, and there are players on both teams, at any position, who could take over the game.
Lexie Hull – Christyn Williams
Lexie Hull was the Cardinal’s leading scorer in the Regionals, with 39 points on 13-30 shooting. And Christyn Williams, the Huskies’ most consistent offensive player all year, tallied 36 points on 16-33 shooting in her regional.
Williams is the better defender, frequently guarding the opponent’s best guard. She has an ability (not used often enough) to score on drives into the paint. Hull does a little of everything, but is a master at putting herself in a spot where she has the best chance of scoring.
Hull is a better outside shooter (.404), but Williams has been more than adequate (.351), while shooting a better overall percentage (.471 to .416).
Anna Wilson – Azzi Fudd
The experience difference could not be greater here: Anna Wilson is a sixth-year player, Azzi Fudd a freshman. Wilson, the only Cardinal regular under 6-0, plays the point, and steadies her offense. She only contributes 4.8 points per game, but her steady play keeps Stanford on track. Texas kept the ball out of her hands, and the Cardinal committed 20 turnovers, six more than their average.
Wilson was 2021 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Fudd has not played like a freshman, as might be expected from the high school player of the year. Until the tournament, she mostly has been a three-point shooter this season. Her 44 percent shooting from there (55-126) is the best on either team. In the Elite Eight, she began to show more of her game, shooting pull-ups, dribble drives, and scoring at the rim. She has the potential to well exceed her 12.4 point average. Auriemma’s faith in her is reflected by the fact that she leads the team in tournament minutes.
Cameron Brink – Olivia Nelson-Ododa
Two centers, Cameron Brink at 6-4 and 6-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa, anchor their teams’ defenses. Brink, a third-team AP All-American and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, ranks 10th in blocks per game (2.65) with a total of 89 on the season. She had six against Texas in the Elite Eight.
Brink is mobile around the basket, and averages a team high 13.4 points per game, shooting 56 percent. She does not pass especially well, and has turned the ball over 55 times.
Nelson-Ododa is a less aggressive scorer, but an excellent passer, leading the Huskies with 109 assists to just 63 turnovers, a ratio that makes her fifth nationally among forward/centers. She has averaged nine rebounds in tournament play, and seven points per game.
Fran Belibi – Aaliyah Edwards
Francesca Belibi is far more than YouTube’s 6-1 woman who has dunked the ball in several games. She has an instinct for finding the empty, unguarded spot on the court, specializing in off-side rebounding. Of her 90 boards this year, 65 were offensive. Although she averages 7.9 points a game, she hits 59 percent of her attempts. She has scored in double figures in 12 games, twice hitting 20 points.
Aaliyah Edwards is a 6-3 athletic force of nature, an instinctive and strong rebounder, who hit 53 percent of her shots, averaging, 7.5 points per game. Sixty-eight of her 99 rebounds were offensive. She has the quickness to defend on the perimeter, and the strength to defend in the post.
Stanford: Hanna Jump is a 40 percent three-point shooter, who has hit 82 of her 104 shots from beyond the arc. Lacie Hull, Lexie’s twin, plays much less than her sister, and focuses on defense. She averages 4.3 points per game, has 92 assists, and is second only to her twin with 49 steals on the season.
The Cardinal also have two bigs who fill space when Brink is on the bench. Kiki Iriafen and Ashten Prechtel, both 6-5, average 16 minutes and seven points combined.
UConn: Nika Muhl, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, is also the shortest player on the team at 5-10. She has provided instant energy off the bench (and as a starter).
“Whether she plays four minutes or 40, she impacts the game,” Auriemma said. “And that’s the best thing you can say about a player.”
Despite his constant praise for Muhl, however, Auriemma has limited her time in the tournament, even when he needed defense more than offense.
Evina Westbrook, a fifth-year senior, has long been the calming presence on this team. She is second on the team in assists (108), with just 60 turnovers. She averaged nine points per game on the season, but Auriemma has also limited her minutes in the NCAA tournament, despite some electrifying performances in the Big East tournament.
Caroline Ducharme saved the Huskies’ season, with four games of 20-plus points in January. In the post-season, she has been all but forgotten, logging just 15 minutes in the last three games. A 6-2 freshman, she is an adequate defender, and may be needed just for her length with recently injured Dorka Juhasz no longer available as a post backup.
Stanford’s defense allows teams to shoot .346, and 56.6 points per game. UConn’s defense holds opponents to .356 shooting, and 53.6 points per game.
Both are team defenses with excellent communication and defensive rotation. Both have big guards, UConn’s averaging 5-11, Stanford’s just under 6-1. Wilson, the Cardinal’s best one-on-one defender, is 5-9, Nika Muhl 5-10.
Both defenses rely on post players with great rotational coverage. Brink is a block machine, while Nelson-Ododa is a more positional defender, with the ability to block shots as well.
If there is a defensive x-factor, it could be Edwards, whose superior athleticism allows her to lead the press, defend the perimeter, or guard the block.
Keys to victory
Stanford is one of the most disciplined offenses in the nation. Everyone seems to know where to be, and when. They know where their teammates will be, and when. And they have the patience to keep moving and cutting until someone is open. Everyone can shoot.
Texas had success by taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands, and making the Hull sisters initiate the offense. That seemed to break the Cardinal’s rhythm and result in turnovers, on which the Longhorns capitalized. Eventually, Jones began to bring the ball up court, and things settled down enough for the victory.
UConn pressures the ball well, and if Auriemma will use his guard depth, a press could be successful at increasing the turnovers and the fast break points.
The other thing Texas did well, was get Brink off the court by drawing fouls.
UConn would do well to exploit both areas.
UConn’s offense is, like Stanford’s based on motion, and passing. Their assists are greater than Stanford’s and they turn the ball over less often. But if they are forced to play at another team’s pace, they can look completely inept.
Although both teams, with similar offenses, generally like the same pace, Stanford might consider trying to rush the Huskies into one of those disjointed periods.
UConn’s post depth disappeared when Juhasz was injured in the Elite Eight.
Pressuring and attacking the post to get Nelson-Ododa and Edwards in foul trouble could really hurt UConn’s offense and defense.
As may be obvious from the discussion of post player fouls above, a key to this game could be something over which the players and coaches have no control: officiating.
Referees are at their best when they are invisible. Unfortunately, far too often they are intrusively obvious. Far too many officials seem to think that they are officiating a middle-school game of young girls, calling fouls to “protect” them from contact.
Of course, that thinking belongs in ancient history along with rules of six-on-six basketball. Today’s players are athletes. Basketball is a contact sport. Officiating as if these players were “just girls” has two serious drawbacks: (1) key players are unable to play due to foul trouble (see, Cameron Brink in the Elite Eight); and (2) the game loses all flow, forcing players to play one-on-one rather than as a team (see, well, Stanford v. Texas, Elite Eight).
Brink and Nelson-Ododa must be in the game for the teams to play optimally. Brink, a sophomore, has been foul prone all season. She fouled out of the Sweet 16 with just 19 minutes on the court, and played only 21 minutes in the Elite Eight. Stanford’s leading scorer, rebounder, and defensive player missed half the minutes in the Regional.
Nelson-Ododa, a senior, has been better at avoiding fouls this season, but still committed a team high 89 fouls. She played 30 minutes in the Sweet 16 and 38 in the Elite Eight, playing the entire overtime with four fouls.
The Cardinal have depth in the post, with Prechtel and Iriafen both 6-5 and capable players. Strangely, however, VanDerveer has used them sparingly in the Regionals, despite Brink’s problems.
The Huskies, on the other hand, now has no depth in the post, with Juhasz’ season-ending wrist injury. Piath Gabriel and Amari DeBerry are both 6-5, but neither has played a minute in significant games. Ducharme, a 6-2 guard, is the tallest non-starter who has any important game experience.
The last time the Final Four was in Minneapolis, Stanford and UConn met in the semifinal. The Huskies prevailed, 87-60, then beat Tennessee two days later to complete an undefeated season and win their first of 11 national championships.
This year the teams couldn’t be more different, and this one is unlikely to be a blowout.