The Stanford Cardinal and South Carolina Gamecocks are headed to the women's Final Four. Half of the field is set after both No. 1 seeds won Sunday; the Cardinal advance for the 15th time, and the Gamecocks are on their way to their fourth appearance in the national semifinals.
Their victories Sunday came in different ways: the Cardinal's win in a game that went down to the wire with the No. 2 seed Texas Longhorns, and the Gamecocks' in a rout that ended the Cinderella run of the No. 10 Creighton Bluejays.
Now, two more No. 1 seeds have a chance to advance to Minneapolis out of Monday night's regional finals (7 and 9 p.m. ET, ESPN). If they do, the ACC will comprise the other half of the field, as is the case in the men's Final Four with Duke and North Carolina.
For the women, the top-seeded NC State Wolfpack and Louisville Cardinals -- both seeking their first national championship -- will try to punch their tickets. If they win, it will be the first time both Final Fours have had multiple ACC teams. The SEC in 1996 and the Big East in 2009 and 2013 are the only other conferences that have done it.
ESPN's team of Katie Barnes, Charlie Creme, Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel dissect what we saw Sunday and look ahead to Monday's finals.
Follow this link to check your bracket in the Women's Tournament Challenge, where 61.4% of brackets had South Carolina in the Final Four and 57.3% tabbed Stanford to reach Minneapolis.
Will NC State reach its first Final Four since 1998, or will UConn reach its 14th consecutive Final Four?
Barnes: Against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16, NC State looked flat and tight for most of the game, and though it took Raina Perez getting a steal and a layup to take the lead in the dying embers of the game, the Wolfpack still won. Good teams win under myriad conditions, and both NC State and UConn have proven they have the capacity to do that.
Azzi Fudd is the X factor. UConn will need her to knock down shots and help stretch the floor. And Fudd will need to be aggressive. Indiana successfully limited Fudd's impact after she hit a few 3-pointers early in Saturday's game. The freshman shot just 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. With Paige Bueckers not at 100 percent, Fudd's ability to score and facilitate becomes even more important. She has shown that she can explode for big numbers. If UConn is going to move on, the Huskies will need a big night from Fudd. And I think that will happen. It's a tough decision, but I will stick with my original pick: UConn will make its 14th consecutive Final Four.
Philippou: I'm really intrigued to see how NC State's defense matches up against UConn's offense. Against Notre Dame, the Wolfpack allowed the Irish to shoot 51% from the field -- including 77% in the second quarter -- compared to NC State's 40% clip. The Wolfpack didn't play with a ton of defensive urgency until the final frame, during which they forced seven Irish turnovers that they used to retake the lead and ultimately win the game. Of note: UConn is 23-0 when it scores 70 or more points. Whichever team controls the boards will also be a big factor. The Huskies' 15 offensive rebounds helped them dominate the Hoosiers, but the Wolfpack are a much better rebounding team.
I'll stick with my original pick as well -- UConn over NC State -- but I wouldn't be surprised if it breaks the other way. If it does, I'm calling Raina Perez with the winning play. She has the juice.
Voepel: When these programs met on March 23, 1998, in the Dayton Regional final, the No. 4 seed Wolfpack had already pulled off an upset: They had defeated top-seeded Old Dominion in the semifinals. No. 2 seed UConn beat No. 3 Arizona in the semis, and current Wildcats' coach Adia Barnes was the Wildcats' star.
What's the same 24 years later? UConn coach Geno Auriemma, of course. After the Chasity Melvin-led Wolfpack rallied from a double-digit second-half deficit to win 60-52 and send legendary coach Kay Yow to her only Final Four, Auriemma graciously said if he had to lose a regional final to anyone, he was glad it was to her.
Now, coach Wes Moore's Wolfpack are the No. 1 seed but will feel like an underdog for obvious reasons: UConn's 11 NCAA titles, the Huskies' Final Four streak that dates to 2008 and Monday's game being played in Connecticut. And as has been pointed out, NC State had to scramble and get a great defensive play by Perez to escape Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.
But we will give the Irish credit for how tough a foe they were, and how maybe that was a perfect game for the Wolfpack to play -- and survive -- before going against UConn. The Wolfpack have to make more than the five 3-pointers they had against the Irish. They have to rebound as well as they have all season. They have to avoid turnovers, which they did pretty well against Notre Dame. And they can't allow those big scoring runs UConn is famous for.
Pelton: NC State has been the better team this season by advanced metrics for the same reasons the Wolfpack are the No. 1 seed, but we know something those measures don't: Bueckers is back, and Fudd is a different player at the end of her freshman season than she was at the start. Those factors, plus de facto home-court advantage in Bridgeport, help explain why UConn is a 4-point favorite. So if anyone is going to pull an upset on Monday, it's actually going to be the top seed. After Saturday's dominant performance, I'm also picking the Huskies.
Aliyah Boston is South Carolina's star and was the Greensboro Most Outstanding Player. But who else will need to step forward for the Gamecocks in the Final Four?
Voepel: You might not get much attention being the other post players for South Carolina, but forward Victaria Saxton has done a good job all this season and last as a starter who understands her role: defend, rebound and take her offensive opportunities when they come.
The 6-foot-2 senior is part of the reason the Gamecocks have had 13 games this season, including Sunday, in which they've scored 40 or more points in the paint. She had her first double-double of the season against Creighton (11 points and 11 rebounds).
Saxton averaged 8.9 PPG last season, but South Carolina hasn't needed her to produce as much offensively this season (5.7). Her rebounding has remained about the same: at 5.8 in 2020-21 and 5.9 this year. And she has really elevated on the boards in this NCAA tournament, averaging 11.5 in South Carolina's four games.
South Carolina also has 6-4 junior Laeticia Amihere, who is so versatile she can even play point guard, which she did when Destanni Henderson was out because of injury. And there is 6-7 Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso, who coach Dawn Staley can bring off the bench. Amihere and Cardoso each had nine points against Creighton.
Amihere is averaging 6.5 PPG and 3.8 RPG and Cardoso 5.7 PPG and 5.3. Those two and Saxton give Boston plenty of support, and that's a headache every South Carolina foe has to deal with.
Barnes: South Carolina will need Brea Beal to be the defensive stopper she is, but the Gamecocks will also need her to contribute just a bit offensively. Every player has a role, and Beal's is mostly defense, rebounding and facilitating, but when teams send a double to Boston in the paint, they're most likely coming off of Beal. That's what Creighton tried to do, and Beal made the Bluejays pay, shooting 5-of-9 from the field for 12 points in the Elite Eight. But against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, Beal went 0-for-6. She will get open shots, and if she can convert a couple of them -- in addition to everything else she does that doesn't show up in the stat sheet -- that will go a long way to opening up the lane for Boston.
Creme: Sunday's game illustrated who South Carolina most needs to be Boston's leading sidekick: Destanni Henderson. When she shoots well (5-of-9 from the field), is efficient and creates, the Gamecocks cruise -- like they did against Creighton.
It is no coincidence that when South Carolina's offense was questioned after the second round, Henderson was struggling. At that point she was a combined 8-of-29 from the floor with six turnovers and zero assists. On Sunday, she was turnover-free and had three assists. Henderson's play is the difference between a poor South Carolina offense and a thoroughly dominating unit.
Philippou: A surging Henderson, especially considering her earlier tournament struggles as Charlie pointed out, makes South Carolina so much tougher to beat, but Zia Cooke could be a real X factor these next 1-2 games. Cooke had her first scoreless game of her career against Creighton (0-for-4 shooting in 25 minutes) and is averaging just 7.0 points on 11-for-45 shooting (6-for-22 from 3) during the tournament. If she can take care of the ball, take good shots and hit them like she did against North Carolina (or even better), that would make it more difficult for opponents to pack the paint against the Gamecocks, in turn granting Boston more room to operate. A year ago, Cooke was huge in the tournament, where she was named to the Final Four all-tournament team, and a renewed Cooke could really help the Gamecocks cross the finish line in Minneapolis.
On Dec. 2, Louisville beat Michigan 70-48 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. How will Monday's matchup be different?
Creme: I'm not sure it will be dramatically different. All the reasons that this matchup went so decidedly Louisville's way in December still exist today. Most notably, the Cardinals' interior length that made Michigan's Naz Hillmon a non-factor is even more impactful now. Emily Engstler, Olivia Cochran and Liz Dixon barely let Hillmon touch the ball in the low post, let alone score. She attempted just nine field goals in the game, equaling her second-lowest total of the season.
Louisville quickly made the game a rout, largely by eliminating Hillmon immediately. By the time she attempted her fourth shot, she also had three turnovers -- and the Cardinals led by 16 points midway through the second quarter. Eight of her 12 points came after the Cardinals had taken a 39-15 halftime lead.
So often, teams dramatically change during a season. These teams really haven't. Louisville is built on its defense, and Michigan has games in which the offense struggles. The Wolverines' past two tournament games are a good example. They have averaged 58 points. Part of that is the slow pace of Villanova and South Dakota. Part of it is that Michigan made only 40.0% of its shots. Louisville's defense is not going to help that.
I'm sure the Dec. 2 game film has been watched as often as preschoolers view Encanto. Adjustments will be made. But that goes for both sides. Louisville coach Jeff Walz knows how to scheme defense as well as any coach and is great at neutralizing the opponent's strength. Hillmon is Michigan's strength. If she's not shooting and scoring, a 22-point spread almost seems about right.
Voepel: Both teams talked a lot Sunday about that matchup almost four months ago, and both tried to downplay it. But Charlie's points are well taken: Is Michigan different enough to make this a different game?
We saw how well Louisville limited Tennessee's interior presence in the semifinals Saturday: The 6-foot-6 Tamari Key got off only five shots and made just one. Hillmon has been terrific in the NCAA tournament, averaging 22.7 points and shooting 69% from the field. Michigan freshman guard Laila Phelia has a lot more experience than she had in early December, and she made the key basket late in Saturday's victory over South Dakota.
But it can't be discarded that Michigan has yet to play a single-digit seed, and now has to face the region's No. 1. Much is rightfully made of Louisville's defense. And even with the shiner that Louisville's Cochran was sporting Saturday (product of contact she got in the second half against Tennessee), she is ready for the defensive assignment against Hillmon, plus has the ultra-energetic Engstler providing plenty of help.
Louisville guard Hailey Van Lith hasn't been afraid to speak her mind, something Walz doesn't mind because he likes confident players. Van Lith knows the Cardinals are thought of as defense-first, but she thinks they are going to be a handful on the other side of the ball, too. And that could be a problem for Michigan, even if the Wolverines' offense is much better than it was in December.
"We've got a lot of great scorers on this team," Van Lith said. "We really play defense the way we do because we want to score so bad -- we love to get out and run. I think most of our defensive energy comes from the fact that we just want to score."
Philippou: I can't see the ultimate result being much different. Louisville's star trio of Van Lith, Engstler and Kianna Smith, paired with a tough defense that has demonstrated its ability to neutralize opponents' inside threats, will likely be too much for the Wolverines to overcome. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Sunday that Louisville's "defensive intensity has been exceptional, probably one of the best we have faced, and we've played a really tough schedule." That urgency has been on display in the tournament so far, and I suspect that won't change. While Hillmon has had a strong showing in the tournament, the Wolverines as a whole haven't had a particularly confidence-instilling run, taking some time to pull away from 11-seed Villanova in the second round and winning by three over 10-seed South Dakota in the Sweet 16.
Louisville's identity has revolved around defense all season, but what could push this team over the edge over the next week or so is how it fares offensively, and Van Lith is a huge part of that. The Cardinals are 7-0 when she scores at least 20 points, and five of those games have come since Feb. 20.
Stanford came away with a tough win over Texas to advance to its 15th Final Four and second straight. What did we learn about the Cardinal on Sunday?
Philippou: I don't anticipate Stanford will see the sort of defensive pressure and physicality with which Texas plays until maybe the national title game. That said, its offensive execution left a lot to be desired in stretches Sunday. The Cardinal's 20 turnovers could have cost them a Final Four berth (especially if Texas made more of its free throws), and even when they didn't cough up the ball, they weren't always working through their offense and getting good shots out of it. As much as Stanford had managed to overcome the graduation of point guard Kiana Williams after last season, this was one of the few games of late in which her absence was really felt. It should be noted that Stanford also turned over the ball 20 times in its December loss to fellow Final Four team South Carolina.
But with Lexie Hull, Cameron Brink and Haley Jones leading the way, the Cardinal grinded out the win, and demonstrated they have the grit, playmakers and resilience to potentially repeat as national champions.
Barnes: Brink is a force, and Stanford is so much better with her on the floor. Brink had 10 points, 6 rebounds and 6 blocks in 21 minutes. She also had four fouls, which is why she played only 21 minutes. But when she was on the floor, she changed the game. From her defensive presence in the lane to the flashes of brilliance she showed on offense (including showing some range and knocking down a 3), Brink has the ability to be transcendent when she can stay on the floor. In such a competitive environment, each team is going to want the best version of itself on the floor. How Stanford navigates that reality with a foul-prone Brink could be the difference between successfully defending its title and going home without any new hardware.
Creme: Statistically, Stanford won its Elite Eight game against Texas with big rebounding (45-28) and free throw (18-11) advantages. Outside of the box score, the Cardinal won with toughness, grit and interior defense. Fran Belibi's work on the defensive glass (seven boards), Brink's 10 points and three blocks during a key surge to start the third quarter, and Hull's layup and three-point play with 2:29 remaining when Stanford's lead was down to two were all major factors in the Cardinal win. The Longhorns repeatedly came at Stanford with pressure and physicality, and the Cardinal had an answer every time. After grabbing a 25-24 lead with 3:39 left in the second quarter on another big shot from Hull, Stanford never trailed again. Champions know how to play from in front. The Cardinal did it masterfully.
Voepel: Despite cruising through a lot of Pac-12 season, the Cardinal did get tested near the end of that slate, along with the nonconference losses they suffered. It has added up to Stanford being able to withstand the heat late in games and not get rattled. The fact that the Cardinal don't have just one go-to player in the clutch has been to their benefit and could be a big part of defending their title.
As for Brink, if Tara VanDerveer found a magic lantern and genie that granted her three wishes, she might be tempted to spend one asking that her sophomore star stay out of foul trouble the rest of her career. Because Brink being on the bench is about the only way you can neutralize her. VanDerveer has tried to impress that fact on Brink endlessly, and that message will go out again as Stanford heads to Minnesota.