By Michael Harley | @mhar3481
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS – A showdown between two national powerhouses will take place Friday night in the second semifinal game of the NCAA Women’s Final Four. The Connecticut Huskies will meet the defending national champion Stanford Cardinal at the Target Center. UConn (29-5) is making its 22nd Final Four, this appearance marking its 14th consecutive trip to the national semifinals. The Huskies have won a record 11 championships, including back-to-back titles in 2009-10 and four in a row from 2013-16. Stanford (32-3) has been to the Final Four 15 times, winning three national titles of its own.
Sophomore phenom Paige Bueckers will lead the Huskies in her hometown of Minneapolis after recovering from a left knee injury that forced her to miss 19 games during the regular season. Bueckers was sensational in Connecticut’s thrilling double-overtime regional final against North Carolina State on Monday night, scoring 23 of her 27 points in the second half and overtime periods. Senior guard Christyn Williams and freshman guard Azzi Fudd, along with Bueckers, combine to make UConn’s backcourt one of the best in women’s college basketball.
When asked if Bueckers’ return to Minneapolis for the Final Four would be a distraction, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma provided a colorful response. “Paige is a walking distraction,” Auriemma said. “So it doesn’t matter where we are, whether we’re at school or whether we’re here. There’s just stuff that follows her around, and it’s fine. Our players are okay with it.” Bueckers was noticeably absent from the UConn press conference on Thursday, but she did take the floor with her teammates for practice.
Stanford is led by first-team all-American junior guard Haley Jones. Honored as the Most Outstanding Player at the 2021 Women’s Final Four, Jones looks to lead her Cardinal teammates to back-to-back national championships. Jones has averaged 12.5 points and eight rebounds this season to go along with her stifling defensive prowess.
Senior guard Lexie Hull and third-team all-American forward Cameron Brink also lead the charge for Stanford.
The Cardinal haven’t suffered a defeat since they lost at No. 1 ranked South Carolina on Dec. 21. “We have a lot of cross-country rivalries now,” Jones said. “We have the South Carolina one, we have the UConn one. But to play on this stage in the Final Four will be really fun. I think there will be individual battles. I think there will be defensive team battles, but I’m just really excited to kind of be part of that legacy, I guess.”
The teams share a rivalry that dates back decades, but UConn and Stanford have not played against each other since 2017. Auriemma was asked why the rivalry hasn’t continued over the last several years. “Yeah, it didn’t get renewed,” he said. “I guess we played at their place, then they were supposed to come back to our place, and something got lost in translation, I guess. We’ve always had great games with them.”
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer also addressed the rivalry. “I think it is a fun east-west rivalry,” she said. “There definitely is probably an East Coast bias. You’re sleeping when we’re playing a lot back east. But we get to go back to beautiful California, so I wouldn’t trade that.”
While the two programs may have stopped scheduling each other during the regular season, this epic Final Four matchup should be a treat for all basketball fans. Two of the most successful programs in the history of women’s college basketball, as well as two of the greatest college coaches of all-time will collide on college basketball’s greatest stage – the most storied women’s program on the East Coast versus the most storied women’s program on the West Coast at a neutral site in the heart of the Midwest. It’s a dream matchup for any true college basketball fan.