Notre Dame and South Carolina arrive in Tampa, Florida, evenly matched, with just two losses apiece, as No. 1 seeds and as conference regular-season and tournament champs. But no commonality is more relevant now than the sound defeats each suffered during the regular season against Connecticut. Both teams would love to get one more crack at the Huskies. The only way that can become possible is to beat the other on Sunday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET) at Amalie Arena.
Why they'll win the national title
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have had their sights set on this weekend since getting upset by North Carolina in last year's regional semifinals at Stanford. Dawn Staley's crew avenged that loss in the same game against the same team last weekend, albeit barely, and then knocked off another ACC foe in Florida State to reach South Carolina's first Final Four.
The Gamecocks won in Greensboro by a combined eight points, trailing for most of both games. But even amidst subpar performances, South Carolina played big when it mattered most, despite having only three seniors in the rotation and just one who sees significant minutes.
The Gamecocks are the only newbies in this Final Four, but shouldn't at all be jilted by the moment. They are battle-tested after the regionals, but they also have a coach in Dawn Staley, whose résumé of big games as a player matches anyone in the sport (three Final Fours, three Olympic gold medals, two FIBA championships, one WNBA finals appearance). This Final Four is the culmination of Staley's tireless seven-year rebuilding plan at South Carolina, but almost certainly won't be one of those "just happy to be here" moments.
South Carolina brings the most size to Tampa, as well as national freshman of the year candidate A'ja Wilson and first-team All-American Tiffany Mitchell. The Gamecocks also boast one of the country's toughest defenses, something they will need because Connecticut, Notre Dame and Maryland are three of the best offenses this season had to offer. All three rank in the top 10 in points per game and field goal percentage.
Notre Dame: The Irish's run of five straight Final Fours and appearances in three of the past four championship games is historic, yet profoundly overshadowed by UConn's dominance during the same time frame. Apparently, the "Luck of the Irish" does not apply to timing.
Once again in 2015, Muffet McGraw was able to replace program mainstays -- this time Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa -- and produce a team just as talented and nearly as successful. At 35-2 overall, the Irish dominated the ACC and had a fairly comfortable run to Tampa despite not getting the best out of espnW Player of the Year Jewell Loyd in wins over Stanford and Baylor in the regionals.
Notre Dame's ability to execute offense more fluidly and efficiently than any team not located in Storrs is again the primary reason the Irish once again advanced to the Final Four.
This team has blossomed with Loyd as the catalyst, but the addition of freshman Brianna Turner, and the steady improvement of Lindsay Allen and Taya Reimer, each of whom might be playing their best basketball of the season, have taken the Irish to another level. They are solid defensively and probably underrated as rebounders, but neither South Carolina nor Maryland has the ability to score its way to a championship like Notre Dame does. In a two-day tournament with UConn as one of the teams left, that just might give the Irish the next-best chance to get over the hump and cash in on this recent run with a title.
The three keys
1. In the paint: The natural thought would be to look at South Carolina's size -- three frontcourt regulars are 6-foot-4 or taller -- and say the Gamecocks will easily outrebound Notre Dame, creating a huge advantage. But South Carolina has not always been a dominant rebounding team against its best opponents. Florida State was better on the glass, North Carolina was virtually even, as was Kentucky in the Gamecocks' only SEC loss. South Carolina was 10th in the country in rebounding margin, but can be had. Notre Dame was 15th. That likely won't be the area to watch.
But South Carolina excels in its ability to score in the lane, running its offense purposefully to create and convert easy shots, not relying on gathering the misses. The Gamecocks scored 48 points in the paint against Florida State, yet only three of them were second-chance points. They didn't beat the Seminoles with rebounding, but rather making high percentage shots.
Stopping this sort of attack is where the Irish have been deficient. Notre Dame allowed 40 points in the paint against Baylor. The Irish aren't always susceptible defending down low, but when they lose it is often a culprit (UConn and Miami had success in the paint). This is an area worth watching if Dawn Staley utilizes a similar strategy that helped her team topple the Seminoles.
2. The free throw line: Notre Dame is an outstanding shooting team (ranks second nationally in field goal percentage behind UConn at 49.8 percent). Aside from the second-half struggles against Baylor, that ability has translated to the free-throw line (74 percent).
South Carolina, however, is not good from the line. The Gamecocks shoot 68 percent on its free throws, ranking 198th in the country and easily the worst of the four teams in Tampa. Free throw failures might have contributed to the loss at Kentucky, but otherwise haven't hurt South Carolina. The Final Four is not the time to tempt fate again. In a game this evenly matched, the Gamecocks' struggles at the line could finally be their undoing. A performance above the norm might be necessary for South Carolina to survive.
3. Turner vs. Wilson: The Loyd-Mitchell matchup might bring more veteran star power (and we will get to them in a second), but the head-to-head between Turner and Wilson -- two of the most decorated players coming out of high school last year -- is worth watching closely.
Their seasons were about a wash, playing at nearly the same level since November. Each was her team's second-leading scorer. Turner averaged more points and rebounds, but Wilson averaged more of each per minutes played.
Since the tournament opened, Turner, particularly in the past two rounds, has been the more productive player, averaging 12 points and 8.5 rebounds. Wilson has played just 24 combined minutes, scoring a total of 14 points. Both are key high-post/high-screen presences, important aspects to both half-court attacks. They are the tallest players on their respective teams. Watching them match up one-on-one in the lane would not only be fun, but the results could be indicative of where the game is headed. Even if the 6-5 Wilson doesn't score, her ability to limit Turner's efficiency could be a big advantage to South Carolina. If the 6-3 Turner can match or exceed her recent production, check the scoreboard, because Notre Dame is probably winning.
The names you know
Tiffany Mitchell: The guard hit the game-winning shot against North Carolina. She scored seven points in the final two minutes against Florida State. If Mitchell, the two-time SEC Player of the Year, keeps this up she might just get a reputation for being clutch. She's already known as a highly efficient offensive performer (14.5 PPG) who shoots better than 50 percent from the field. No player has meant more to the growth of the South Carolina program than Mitchell, and there is no one Staley trusts more.
Jewell Loyd: Typically lauded as one of the game's best athletes, Loyd is now unequivocally one of its two or three best players. Like Mitchell, Loyd is a first-team All-American and, despite not playing her best in Oklahoma City, has shown a knack for playing well in big games and against the best opponents (she averaged nearly 24 points per game against top-25 teams this season). Whether she and Mitchell match up one-on-one or Khadijah Sessions gets more of the responsibility checking Loyd, the Notre Dame junior could put either in foul trouble. With all the excitement that comes with her game, Loyd's fundamental ability to get to the free throw line is sometimes overlooked. Only five players in the country had more attempts from the free-throw line this season.
South Carolina: Alaina Coates. As good as Mitchell is in the clutch, South Carolina is clearly a better team over 40 minutes when the ball goes to Coates on the low block. Coates' 14 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting in 27 minutes was the catalyst in the comeback against Florida State. Aleighsa Welch and Wilson are also solid post scorers, but are often more effective in the high post. It's the 6-4 Coates who can be nearly unstoppable down low and could be the toughest matchup for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame: Lindsey Allen. The Irish point guard grew more assertive as the season wore on, culminating with a spectacular performance in Oklahoma City where she, not Loyd, was Notre Dame's best player. Just as a distributor, Allen is a solid player. She is a major driving, shooting, scoring threat, and averaged 25.5 points on 19-of-33 shooting and 5.5 assists in the regionals. When she is playing this well, defenses have to make tough choices. She can give Notre Dame one too many threats for any defense to manage.
Prediction: Notre Dame