By Meghan Rominger
Sports Capital Journalism Program
MINNEAPOLIS – In the past decade, perhaps no other women’s college basketball teams have been as successful as the University of South Carolina and the University of Louisville. The Gamecocks and Cardinals have collected wins, tournament berths and postseason accolades at an unprecedented pace, with head coaches Dawn Staley and Jeff Walz building two of the country’s premier programs in a little more than a decade.
On Friday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis, the No. 1 seeds will meet in the 2022 Women’s Final Four and will battle for a spot in the national championship game on Sunday. As two of the season’s most consistent teams, the incipient dynasties are sure to deliver in a matchup the college basketball world continually yearns for: an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
“Whoever it is that’s standing – the last team that’s standing on Sunday night, it’s divine order,” Staley said during Thursday’s press conference. “I truly believe that.”
As the top overall seed in this year’s tournament, South Carolina (33-2) and coach Dawn Staley are prepared for Friday’s matchup due in large part to their familiarity with the semifinal stage.
Friday’s game will mark the Gamecocks’ fourth Final Four appearance in the last seven NCAA tournaments, a span that culminated with the program’s first-ever national championship in 2017. Under Staley’s leadership, South Carolina has played in the last 10 NCAA tournaments, eight Sweet Sixteen games, five Elite Eights, four Final Fours and one championship game.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to be judged by championships. That’s the thing that people remember,” Staley said Thursday. “Do we feel pressure to win? Yeah, because we’re a pretty good basketball team. Will us not winning define who we are and what we’re able to accomplish? No.”
This season, the Gamecocks’ defensive prowess has been both impenetrable and unmatched. Currently, they lead NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball in NET ranking, blocks (265), field goal percentage defense (32.7) and scoring margin (20.6).
“We’re just going to play the game. I think a lot of people have questioned our offense through the tournament,” Staley said in a pregame press conference on Tuesday.
“We’re playing good basketball.”
Louisville’s (29-4) biggest challenge on Friday will be South Carolina’s comfortability with big games. The Gamecocks lead the NCAA in wins over ranked teams, winning 12 games against ranked opponents this year.
The Cardinals will also have to contend with South Carolina’s Naismith Women’s Player of the Year, Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of the Year, and AP Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. Boston led the nation this year in win shares (16.0) player efficiency rating (44.9) and double-doubles (28).
“We know we’re going to have to make sure we’re focused on her and know where she is at all times, but she’s also got pretty good teammates she’s playing with,” said Louisville head coach Jeff Walz. “So, we’ll have a plan for tomorrow night, and then if plan A doesn’t work, we’ll go to plan B, and then plan C if needed.”
But the Cardinals will be bringing a debilitating consistency of their own into the matchup. Like South Carolina, the University of Louisville and Walz are becoming a women’s college basketball dynasty.
Like Staley, Walz and his teams have become accustomed to working for a steady presence in the postseason. As Walz has noted several times this postseason, every University of Louisville player who has spent four years under his leadership has now advanced to a Final Four.
“You listen to the shows, and I guess we’re not supposed to be here. I’m not sure. But it’s our fourth Final Four in 15 years,” Walz said Thursday.
“When I hear people say, ‘What are you going to do to get over the hump?,’ what hump is there to get over, besides winning a national championship?”
The Cardinals have made 13 NCAA tournament appearances in 14 tries under Walz, with this year’s tournament marking their 11th straight. In Walz’s tenure, he and the team have appeared in 11 Sweet Sixteen games, seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours and two championship games in 2009 and 2013.
Though not quite as demoralizing in defense as South Carolina, Louisville has successfully pressured and exhausted its opponents this season, and it has only upped its power during the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals finished in the top 15 in NCAA rankings this year in scoring margin (No. 9, 17.0), field goal percentage (No. 11, 45.6) and turnover margin (No. 13, 5.5).
Walz understands the comparisons between South Carolina and Louisville, but he doesn’t care about the prognostications.
“You have [Pardon the Interruption] and Tony [Kornheiser] and the guys that are talking about women’s basketball and the Final Four. And talking about the teams and talking about the UConn-Stanford matchup and the winner of that game is going to play South Carolina,” Walz said. “I don’t know if they know [there are] four teams in the Final Four.”
On the season so far, Louisville has outperformed South Carolina in points per game (72.2 to 71.1), field goal percentage (45.6 to 42.6) and several other categories. Despite matching up against the Naismith Player and Defensive Player of the year — and not having one of his own — Walz is confident his roster is prepared and capable of gutting out a win.
“There’s only one leading scorer on the team. But what makes our group unique is… we probably had six or seven leading scorers in different games,” Walz said Thursday. “So, we’re hard to just go into a game and say ‘If you stop this one, then you can beat them.’ That’s just not how it works with us.”
Regardless of Friday’s outcome, it’s clear that Walz and Staley have and continue to engineer two of college basketball’s most exciting teams. As with all semifinal games, only one team will prevail Friday night at the Target Center – but two dynasties will continue to grow.