Two teams punched their tickets to the 2016 NCAA Women’s Final Four on Sunday. Here are three thoughts from the South and North Regional championships.
1. Washington’s historical run isn’t over
Who says a short bench can’t win in March? Injury-plagued Washington, utilizing a limited six-woman rotation, continued its tear through the NCAA tournament by beating No. 4 Stanford, 85–76, to win the South Regional in Lexington. The victory sends the No. 7 Huskies to the program’s very first Final Four.
Kelsey Plum dropped 26 points and eight assists and Chantel Osahor added 16 points, 18 boards and two blocks for coach Mike Neighbors’s squad, which notched its third straight upset of the tournament. Washington, which finished fifth in the Pac-12 during the regular season, used defense to stifle Stanford into submission on Sunday. It blocked eight shots and held the Cardinal to just 34.2% shooting from the floor.
Now a Washington team that lost 10 games during the regular season is peaking at the right time, having won eight of its last 10 overall. The Huskies will take on No. 4 Syracuse in the Final Four in Indianapolis, and with a week of rest, not even a short rotation might stop Washington now.
2. Momentum wasn’t enough for Stanford
Coach Tara VanDerveer’s Cardinal program has long been the class of the Pac-10/12. It won the regular season and conference tournament titles in all but one year during one recent stretch from 2002–13. But with Washington’s upset on Sunday, Stanford was forced to take a backseat to a conference foe in the NCAA tournament.
Prior to facing No. 1 Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday, the Cardinal spent some of last week embracing the program’s underdog role. That approach worked against the Irish; No. 4 Stanford shot 55.9% from the field and 55% from three-point range in a 90–84 upset. But running into Washington, a No. 7 seed, in the Elite Eight likely wasn’t what VanDerveer had in mind. Even though the Cardinal beat the Huskies during the regular season, Washington knocked Stanford out of the Pac-12 tournament earlier this month. Sunday’s victory made it two wins in a row in the series for the Huskies.
Of course, it’s far too early to suggest a power shift is in store for the Pac-12. Stanford has still been to 13 Final Fours, including seven of the last nine years. But the Cardinal carried a lot of momentum coming off an upset of top-seeded Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, Stanford couldn’t capitalize, and now it must watch another Pac-12 foe venture to the Final Four.
3. Only one orange survived in Syracuse-Tennessee
It was hard to ignore the historical discrepancies between the two programs that faced off in Sioux Falls. No. 7 Tennessee boasts eight national championships and 19 trips to the Final Four. No. 4 Syracuse, meanwhile, had never even reached the Sweet Sixteen before last week. But the Orange outdueled the Big Orange on Sunday, notching an impressive 89–67 rout of the tradition-laden Lady Vols to reach its first Final Four.
Anyone who glances at the box score might assume Tennessee laid an egg in the Elite Eight. But UT entered the NCAA tournament having lost a program-record 13 games, and it earned a No. 7 seed, the lowest in program history. Syracuse, meanwhile, looked like a true title contender during the tournament, with its 80–72 upset of No. 1 South Carolina in the Sweet 16 serving as its most prominent performance.
The Orange followed that victory with a dominant outing on Sunday. They knocked down 14 three-pointers and forced Tennessee, which played without injured guard Jordan Reynolds, into 21 turnovers. Syracuse guard Alexis Peterson hit 11 of her 20 shots for a game-high 29 points while Brianna Butler drilled six three-pointers. Now the Lady Vols, once a perennial Final Four contender, haven’t advanced past the Elite Eight in eight seasons. That’s why the story of this region has been Syracuse and head coach Quentin Hillsman. Now we’ll see what a different shade of Orange can do in Indianapolis.