The women’s Final Four begins Friday night in Dallas. One side of the bracket has come down to Stanford and South Carolina. There is a long history between Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer and Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley that includes the 1992 Final Four.
But all eyes are on UConn because the Huskies have won an incredible 111 straight games and the last four national championships. They’ll play the second game on Friday night, against Mississippi State. When the teams met in the Sweet 16 last year, UConn won by 60 points.
I interviewed players and coaches on these topics and more during media day on Thursday. Here’s what they had to say.
No. 1 seed South Carolina vs. No. 2 seed Stanford
Long before she became coach of South Carolina, Staley was a great player for Virginia and Team USA. She led the Cavaliers to the Final Four in three straight years. The closest she came to a title was losing in overtime in 1991. She didn’t get to the finals in ’90 or ’92 because Virginia lost to Stanford teams coached by VanDerveer.
Staley also helped lead Team USA to three Olympic gold medals. She won one of them playing for VanDerveer.
When asked if she thinks Staley will use anything against her, VanDerveer said, “I hope she uses all those things that were bad things that I did.”
Staley said the thing she learned most from VanDerveer was the importance of discipline.
“Just be a discipline coach when it comes to preparation and preparing your team for any situation that they'll face out there on the court,” Staley said.
The Gamecocks have been on the road a lot during the tournament, and they are having a lot of fun. They said their bonding off the court is part of the reason they are so good on the court.
One thing they like do is play the game Head’s Up. But that’s not all they like to do.
“We like to dance a lot—we dance all the time,” forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan said. “We play iPad games, we joke, we talk about each other a lot. [But] we don’t take anything personally.”
No. 1 seed UConn vs. No. 2 seed Mississippi State
Being the team to beat is tough. Everyone has extra incentive to try to take down the giant. But what do the UConn players think about being the team to beat? They love it!
“It is fun to be the person with the target on their back every single game,” said guard Saniya Chong. “We know every time we go out we are going to get that team's best shot.”
This year’s team was expected to struggle because it lost Breanna Stewart, the Most Outstanding Player for each of the last four Final Fours. But these Huskies have picked up where the others left off.
“It is different every year, so I would like to argue that staying on top is harder than getting to the top,” center Natalie Butler said. “And so really the opponent seems to have nothing to lose. They can just go out and play and not have to worry about anything, whereas we have to focus on being perfect every game, which is pretty hard.”
And although they beat the Bulldogs by 60 points the last time they met, the Huskies are treating last year’s demolition job like it’s old news.
“We need to understand that they have returned a lot of their players from last season and from that tournament game, and they have gotten a lot better,” Chong said. “For us, it is a brand new game.”
Last year, Mississippi State matched its deepest run in the NCAA tournament by getting to the Sweet 16. Looking back, several Bulldogs players said they were just happy to be there. Maybe that’s part of the reason they got blown out.
“We’re prepared,” said guard Jazzmun Holmes on playing UConn in the Final Four. “We've been watching lots of film and scouting them, so we'll be ready.”
She also thinks this year’s MSU team is better than last year’s.
“I think [our team] has improved,” Holmes said. “We have people that can make shots, we have people that can get the ball inside when we need it inside, we have people that can come off the bounce, play great defense, we have people that can score. Just outright score.”
The women’s Final Four begins Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Photographs by (from top) Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images; Jake Aron