The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament began with the team with the better seeds winning every game on day one, except that most of the teams outside of the top 4 seeds since 2013 hit the sweet 16.
But now that the most unusual tournament in history, held exclusively in the San Antonio and vicinity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is limited to four teams, it has taken on a more familiar feeling. For the fourth year in a row, at least three # 1 seeds made it to the Women’s Final Four. UConn, Stanford, and South Carolina were all favorites in their regions and have a lot of history on this stage. No. 3 seed Arizona is outlier in 2021. The Wildcats are the fourth Final Four participant in the last six tournaments.
Can Arizona Shock Everyone? Is UConn slated for a 12th NCAA title? Will South Carolina end what it wasn’t a year ago when the tournament was canceled? Can Stanford, number 1 overall seeds break through with their first championship in 29 years?
Here’s a look at how all four teams can claim the championship title, followed by the Final Four picks from our ESPN panel.
Cause for excitement: UConn has reached the 13th Final Four in a row without a senior on the roster. Winning the championship for the first time since 2016 – and the ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives huskies a 44% chance – could mark the birth of another UConn dynasty. And as routine as UConn has become in the Final Four for watchers of the game, this is brand new for everyone but two players on the roster – juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who played against Notre Dame in the national semifinals in 2019. Freshman Paige Bueckers , who is getting her first taste of the Final Four, has exceeded already high expectations and could have a weekend and a career of historic proportions ahead of her.
Reason to worry: It’s hard to find a disadvantage for a team that has gotten even better since Aaliyah Edwards, a 6-foot-3 freshman, stepped onto the grid and Williams and junior colleague Evina Westbrook had their best basketball of the season have played. Edwards only became a starter after his classmate Nika Muhl was injured. This, and the inevitable shortening of rotation as the games get bigger, have left UConn a thin bank. Sophomore Aubrey Griffin was the only non-runner to play Baylor in the regional final. Foul issues, particularly for Nelson-Ododa and Edwards, who each ended Monday’s game with four fouls, could be a problem.
The huskies will win if … They’re getting the kind of contributions they’ve received so far from Williams and Westbrook in the NCAA tournament. Both were brilliant against Iowa. Westbrook got off to a great start against Baylor. Williams had the great second half. If these two score a goal together with Bueckers and defend as they have for the entire season, a 12th championship would be in sight.
X factor: Nelson-Ododa was incredibly defensive and committed on the boards against Baylor. This is exactly what UConn needs from her at this point in time. At the start of the season, when Bueckers was still feeling fine and Williams was struggling with her jump shot, the Huskies needed more points from Nelson-Ododa. No more. She’s now a defender (five blocks against Baylor) and, believe it or not, an intermediary. The 6-5 center has 11 assists in the last two games. This role for Nelson-Ododa made an already great offense even better.
Cause for excitement: Aari McDonald. The 5-6 year old was the best player in the region with two 30-point games. It is the basis for the rebirth of the Arizona program, which culminated with the first Final Four in program history. The two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is also as close to a perfect antidote as you’d expect from UConn’s Paige Bueckers. McDonald’s ability to harass an opposing ball handler is unparalleled. If any player is able to break the rhythm of the UConn offense, it’s McDonald.
Reason to worry: While McDonald stood out against Texas A&M and Indiana, runner-up scorer Cate Reese struggled to find her game. Her 6.5 points per game in these two competitions were five below her average. The 6-2 junior found other ways to contribute and had a total of 15 rebounds, but one goalscorer isn’t enough to take UConn down. Arizona needs Reese to score.
The wildcats will win if … McDonald continues to shoot this way. Usually a 30% 3-point shooter, the left made 11-of-18 (61%) from deep in the last two games. With her incredible speed, her straight-line trips to the basket are tough enough to stop. If her defense attorney also has to worry about shutting down a 21-foot-foot, there is no answer.
X factor: As great as McDonald’s is as a single defender, she’s not the only one. Only Stanford allowed fewer points and a lower proportion of shooting in the Pac-12 than Arizona. The Wildcats must maintain the Huskies’ points in the 60s to overcome the surprise. Here Trinity Baptiste and Bendu Yeaney could play as important roles as possible matchups for Williams and Westbrook.
Cause for excitement: Tuesday’s regional final win was the latest example of the various players Stanford can turn to for a successful performance. Ashten Prechtel, a 6-5 year old, plays an average of 13.6 minutes and 5.6 points per game and barely played in the first half. She came off the bench and scored 16 points in 16 minutes without a miss from the field. She was Stanford’s second best goalscorer. Against the state of Missouri, the cardinal quickly got out. The victory over Louisville came on a late climb. These are just microcosmic examples of how many different options there are and with so many different players Stanford can make a profit regardless of the stakes.
Reason to worry: The cardinal has only put together one complete game in this tournament so far. They jumped fifth seed Missouri State early and never slacked off, but Stanford’s game against Utah Valley, Oklahoma State, and particularly Louisville, saw considerable slacks. Kiana Williams got off to a terrible start against Louisville (1:11 in the first half). As round as Stanford is, Williams is a player who is not interchangeable. Tuesday showed how important their game is to the cardinal’s success. Against South Carolina, she has to be a hitter for 40 minutes.
The cardinal will win if … You keep doing 3-pointers. Endurance shooting isn’t the first thing that comes to Stanford’s mind, but it’s an offensive staple this season. The cardinal scored 50 3-point points in the NCAA tournament. You are fifth in the country in making 3s in the season and sixth in percent (38.3%). Williams, Lexie Hull and Hannah Jump, who made 43.2% of their 3-point attempts from the bench this season, will be critically important.
X factor: How the game is run. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has lamented how physical the game was in the NCAA tournament. She would prefer less physical contact and more free flowing player movements. South Carolina’s style is based on physicality. Every early whistle tells us which way the game is going. Cameron Brink, a 6-4 freshman, has the length to disrupt the South Carolina forecourt and act as rim protection. It’s key to Stanford’s defense efforts, and a big reason the Cardinal ranks second in the country on the percentage of defense on field goals (32.9%). But if it is allowed to be pushed around, that effectiveness is diminished.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Cause for excitement: Defense, defense, defense. A good one just got better in the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks kept their NCAA tournament opponents shooting 34% (slightly better than the regular season 36%), and Sweet 16 opponent Georgia Tech was the only one to score more than 60 points. Stanford will present that defense with challenges that the State of Oregon, Yellow Jackets and Texas couldn’t, but any team that can rule out another for an entire neighborhood, as South Carolina did against the Longhorns in the final stage of the regional final it is clearly fully engaged at this end of the floor.
Reason to worry: Moments arise in big games when teams only need a 3-pointer. This is not South Carolina’s game. The Gamecocks fight in half-field sets to get open shots, especially from the 3-point range. They only made 15 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament compared to Stanford’s 50. For the most part, South Carolina survives well without the 3-pointer being a regular part of its offensive. Destanni Henderson (41.3%) and Zia Cooke (37.7%) can do it. But with possessions becoming more important in the Final Four and with game slowing down in the fourth quarter, it could be difficult for South Carolina to find the critical candid look.
The Gamecocks win if … Aliyah Boston gets consistent touches on the offensive. This has been a chorus all season, but South Carolina is better with their 6-5 center getting the ball in the low post. Boston forces the defense to react more than any other player on the team. In the Gamecocks’ most impressive post-season performance, winning the SEC championship game against Georgia, Boston scored 27 points and had a usage rate of 30%. For South Carolina’s four losses that season, that usage rate was below 21%. The Gamecocks won without Boston’s full participation in the offensive, but they’re better off with it.
X factor: Brea Beal has gone from being a great high school scorer to a gamecock who does all the dirty work. She gets the hard rebound, wins those 50-50 balls, and defends with a tough, physical style. Your likely role in this Stanford game is to harass Haley Jones. The versatile Jones is such a big part of what Stanford likes to do on the offensive. Making opponents uncomfortable is Beal’s specialty. If she can do that to Jones, the odds are much better for South Carolina.
Final four picks
The updated ESPN Basketball Power Index on Wednesday morning shows UConn as the favorite at 42%, followed by Stanford (32%), South Carolina (19%) and Arizona (7%). This is how our panel predicts the last three games of the season.
South Carolina versus Stanford
Andrea Adelson: Stanford
Katie Barnes: Stanford
Charlie Creme: Stanford
D’Arcy Maine: Stanford
Kevin Pelton: Stanford
Mechelle Voepel: Stanford
Royce Young: Stanford
Arizona versus UConn
Expected 2021 champion