By Brendan Rourke and Aidan Wilkins | @B_RourkeSports @AidanJWilkins
Sports Capital Journalism Program
Sports Capital Journalism Program students Brendan Rourke and Aidan Wilkins predict who will advance to the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 2 Oregon
Why Baylor will win –The Lady Bears will prevail because of their defense and experience. Yes, the Ducks have had to play some big power forwards and centers throughout the season – most notably Stanford’s Dijonai Carrington. And, Ruthy Hebard has held her ground despite having a height disadvantage in most matchups. However, Oregon has never faced a duo like Baylor’s Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown. Brown, a 6-foot-7-inch senior, has 233 total career blocks. Cox, a 6-foot-4-inch junior, leads the team with an average of 2.54 blocked shots per game. Furthermore, in 658 of 673 games under coach Kim Mulkey, the Lady Bears have held their opponent at or below 50% field goal shooting. Both Mulkey, and Cox herself, have been confident that she can stifle Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu’s long-range attempts. Additionally, although this specific Lady Bears squad has not been here, this is Mulkey’s fourth Final Four that she’s coaching. She is the only basketball coach to win a national championship as a head coach, assistant coach and player. She has an advantage over Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who has never been on this stage before. Mulkey will know how to assure her team and when to precisely take a timeout should Oregon’s offense heat up.
Why Oregon will win – Beginner’s luck, Ionescu and Hebard. The Ducks are 0-3 all time versus Baylor. But, it’s hard to imagine these kinds of stats have an impact in Final Four games. The atmosphere is completely different from an away game, or even an early round tournament game. Perhaps they’ll get some lucky bounces off the rim away from the waiting hands of Cox and Brown. Plus, there is little doubt the Ducks’ offense won’t attempt to put on an offensive show. Ionescu, the Lieberman award winner, has the most career triple-doubles in the history of women’s basketball. She is the only player in the country averaging at least 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. If either Cox, or point guard Chloe Jackson cannot stop her, she has the ability to take over a game. If she is in trouble, the onus falls on forward Ruthy Hebard. The Alaskan native is averaging 16.4 points per game and 9.1 rebounds. She ranks second in the NCAA with a 67.2 field goal percentage. She’ll have a tough task, but if Cox is caught out of position, she could be in the perfect position for easier buckets.
Prediction – Baylor wins a close, high scoring affair, 78-75. Ionescu will hit a few 3-point shots, and the momentum will favor Cinderella’s team early. They may even have a lead at halftime. But, there is a reason coach Mulkey is heralded as one of the best coaches of all time. It’s extremely difficult to play a defense as staunch as Baylor’s for all 40 minutes. Baylor advances to take on either UConn or Notre Dame.
No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 UConn
The rivalry is renewed. The University of Connecticut is once again set to do battle with the University of Notre Dame. The animosity between these teams has spanned decades, growing increasingly competitive within the last few seasons. Over the last 11 years, Notre Dame has defeated UConn a total of eight times – all other teams in Division 1 have combined for eight total wins against the Huskies over that same period.
Over the years, the players have changed but the coaches have not. UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw have been heated adversaries since the 1980s. McGraw recognizes the rivalry and its significance to the women’s game, “I think it’s very competitive and intense,” says Notre Dame’s head coach. “I think it is the best rivalry in women’s college basketball. I think it’s one the fans and teams all look forward to.”
Even more recently, Notre Dame defeated Connecticut in last year’s Final Four matchup. Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale sank a last second shot in overtime to knock of their rivals, 91-89. To avenge their tournament loss, the Huskies knocked off the Irish earlier this season, 89-71, handing their rivals one of their three regular season losses.
“That’s why you play those games early in the year, because you want to know what your weaknesses are, how teams are going to attack you,” said McGraw, on how her team can benefit from the early season matchup. “You learn a lot from them.”
Auriemma feels that the early season victory has little significance in their Final Four rematch. “I always tell our players whenever we win a big game in December, I say, ‘Listen, we’re going to have to get a lot better fast.’ I’m assuming the teams we play against, they’re getting a lot better. And Notre Dame is a lot better today than they were in December, no doubt in my mind,” said UConn’s head coach. “I mean, I think they’re the best team in the country. I don’t think anybody else is even close. Baylor. But I don’t think anybody else, I think, can match Notre Dame when they’re playing their A game. They just overwhelm you, man, at every position.”
The Irish and the Huskies are both loaded with premiere talent, boasting multiple AP All-American selections. Notre Dame hosts a trio in Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, and Jackie Young. UConn’s All-Americans are a pair of seniors, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. All of the talent on the court will likely lead to a high scoring contest between rivals who are growing used to it.
Despite UConn winning the meeting earlier this season, Notre Dame walks away with a Final Four victory to advance to the National Championship title game on Sunday. The Irish already have a 4-1 series advantage over the Huskies in their head to head Final Four matchups. Notre Dame’s All-American trio and the defensive prowess of Brianna Turner will be too much to handle for the Huskies, dashing their championship hopes in the semifinals for the third consecutive season.
Final: Notre Dame 78 – UConn 71