The 2022 women’s Final Four might look a little familiar: Three of the four teams that are in Minneapolis also reached the final weekend a year ago. Also familiar: Three of the four teams are No. 1 seeds for the fifth consecutive tournament. The Stanford Cardinal are defending champions. The South Carolina Gamecocks are the 2021-22 wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the country. The UConn Huskies are making their 14th Final Four appearance in a row. And the Louisville Cardinals, the team that wasn’t in San Antonio last March, are making their fourth trip to the national semifinals.
All four teams bring plenty of star power: Aliyah Boston of South Carolina; Haley Jones and Cameron Brink from Stanford; UConn’s Paige Bueckers; and Hailey Van Lith of Louisville. But it’s their defense that got them all here. Her Hoops Stats rates all four among the six best defensive teams in the country. Points will be at a premium. First one to 65 wins, then?
Here’s a look at how all four teams plan to raise the championship trophy on Sunday night at the Target Center. The women’s Final Four tips off Friday on ESPN beginning at 7 pm ET.
Reason to be excited: After 14 games this season, Van Lith was a 25.0% 3-point shooter who had more turnovers than assists. Now she’s the first Louisville player with four consecutive 20-point games in the NCAA tournament. Van Lith’s enthusiasm and excitement over the Cardinals’ success has been one of the stories of the tournament. More importantly, her scoring is carrying her team’s offense.
Reason to be concerned: Emily Engstler is college basketball’s Swiss Army knife. Her ability to spearhead a press, get steals (six against Michigan), block shots (1.8 BPG this season) and rebound at a double-digit clip (11.0 RPG in the tournament) is remarkable. She’s the second-rated individual defensive player in the country, according to Her Hoops Stats. But in two of Louisville’s past three games, Engstler’s shooting has been awful. A combined 4-of-22 against Gonzaga and Michigan helped keep both teams in their games against the Cardinals longer than they should have.
The Cardinals will win if… They can find some consistent offense beyond Van Lith. Coach Jeff Walz knows his defense will deliver, so he has said that if his team can just get to 70 points, he’ll be comfortable. Louisville has only hit that number twice in the tournament thus far, one of those instances against Albany. Doing it against South Carolina in the national semifinal seems improbable, but if Engstler or Kianna Smith can have a good shooting night, the upset would be within reach.
Monica McNutt and JJ Redick share who they think will be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis.
Reason to be excited: This is a scary good defensive team. South Carolina leads the country in opponents’ field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and points per play. After forcing all those missed shots, the Gamecocks are the nation’s best defensive rebounding team as well as the best at making sure there are no second chances for the other team. Their first two opponents in the tournament — Howard and Miami — combined to score just 54 points, and the Gamecocks have given up an average of 41.3 points in four games. Coach Dawn Staley has said publicly during the tournament that her offense hasn’t been pulling its weight but that her defense will travel anywhere and still be great. She’s spot-on.
Reason to be concerned: Shooting. As good as their defense is, if the Gamecocks aren’t making at least some jumpers, they’re vulnerable. A 30.8% 3-point rate has gotten even worse in the NCAA tournament (26.1%). Destanni Henderson finally found her stroke in the Elite Eight against Creighton; if she brought it to Minneapolis, South Carolina could be cutting down the nets.
The Gamecocks will win if… Boston gets touches. South Carolina’s plans work better when her teammates get Boston the ball in the post — like they did against Creighton. Against North Carolina, she took it upon herself to go to the offensive boards, for a 28-point, 22-rebound (12 of them offensive) performance. Plenty of scoring talent exists on this South Carolina team, but none of it has been reliable going back to the SEC tournament.
Three players score in double figures for Stanford in a 59-50 victory over Texas.
Reason to be excited: The Cardinal have a chance to defend their title with two of the three best players in the Final Four: Jones and Brink. Jones is a 6-foot-1 point guard who is equal parts dazzling passer and fierce rebounder. Brink is a 6-foot-5 power forward with soft hands, agile feet and fierce shot-blocking instincts. They are the unicorns of college basketball, gifted in the most unique of ways.
Reason to be concerned: As good as they are and as impressive as a 23-game winning streak coming into the Final Four is, the Cardinal have lulls, sometimes sizable ones. Their offense looked lost at the start of the regional final against Texas. Their fourth quarter a game earlier, against Maryland, was one coach Tara VanDerveer said she couldn’t even discuss in a media setting. Whether it’s the turnover issues that aren’t completely solved (20 against Texas and 18 versus Maryland), cold perimeter shooting (23.6% on 3-pointers in the Spokane Regional) or Brink’s foul trouble, Stanford remains vulnerable to any one of these being too much to overcome against the elite competition in Minneapolis.
The Cardinal will win if… The ball moves on offense. Keep an eye on Stanford’s assist-to-field goal ratio. When the backdoor cuts are clicking and the ball changes sides of the court quickly, the Cardinal’s offense is at once lethal and a thing of beauty. However, they have moments when they too easily settle for 3s or get forced into one-on-one drives. They won’t win the national title that way.
Reason to be excited: A 14th straight Final Four is a good start. Consider that eight players have missed at least two games this season due to injury or illness — which led coach Geno Auriemma to use 11 different starting lineups — this run might be more satisfying than the previous 13. That Bueckers looked like the reigning national player of the year in the Bridgeport Regional final against NC State with 27 points — 15 of which came in overtime — for the first time since her knee injury in December is another reason to be optimistic that UConn can win its first national championship since 2016.
Reason to be concerned: Dorka Juhasz suffered a significant wrist injury in the first half against the Wolfpack that will keep the 6-foot-4 senior out for the remainder of the tournament. Without her, Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa are the only two bigs Auriemma has at his disposal. Playing against NC State’s Elissa Cunane, Edwards fouled out and Nelson-Ododa played the fourth quarter and overtime with four fouls, a status that clearly subtracted from Nelson-Ododa’s defensive aggressiveness. Stanford’s frontline is even bigger. Edwards and Nelson-Ododa must both stay on the floor for the Huskies to compete inside.
The Huskies will win if… Azzi Fudd continues to be this involved. Auriemma clearly trusts his freshman guard. Fudd played 49 minutes against NC State. She also penetrated, passed and shot with as much confidence as she has all season. This UConn team doesn’t have the room for error that some of its vintage teams had, so Bueckers and Christyn Williams will also need to be just as good, or better, to beat the Cardinal for a spot in the national final.