ND Women’s Basketball
Final Four Insider: Team Capsules
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, April 2, 2015
South Carolina is on the rise, having made its first Final Four in program history.
The signs from the 2013-14 season already pointed up.
Last season, the Gamecocks advanced to the Sweet 16 and finished with a 29-5 overall record and a 14-2 mark in the SEC.
They lost to North Carolina, 65-58, in the regional semifinal, but despite the tournament loss, South Carolina had reason to stay positive.
A freshman led the Gamecocks in the game against the Tar Heels, as forward Alaina Coates posted a double-double of 22 points and 11 rebounds. Coates was the third-leading scorer last season for South Carolina. None of its top five scorers or top five rebounders were seniors, so all returned for this season.
The Gamecocks averaged 72.9 points per game as a team last season and surrendered 55.8 points per game.
This season, they have improved on both ends. South Carolina has averaged 76.2 points per game in 2014-15 and held opponents to 53.8 points per game. Their only losses this season came against No. 1 Connecticut and No. 11 Kentucky.
Freshman guard/forward A’ja Wilson joined the group of established players and has emerged as the team’s second leading scorer with 12.9 points per game off the bench.
Now, with a 34-2 overall record and a 15-1 SEC record, they head to the Final Four.
Going into its fifth Final Four in as many years, No. 2 Notre Dame is hoping for a different NCAA tournament outcome than last year’s 79-58 defeat to Connecticut in the title game, despite the graduation of standout players Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride.
Notre Dame (35-2, 15-1 ACC) hasn’t lost since Jan. 8, in what head coach Muffet McGraw called a “debacle” at Miami (Fla.).
Other than that, its only loss was to Connecticut on Dec. 6, when forward and ACC Freshman of the Year Brianna Turner was unable to play due to injury. Turner leads the team in rebounds and blocks while also boasting the best field-goal percentage in the NCAA at 65.6 percent.
So far in the tourney, Notre Dame has found success by distributing the ball and keeping the offense balanced. When defenses key on national player of the year candidate and junior guard Jewell Loyd, another player steps up her scoring, whether it’s Turner, junior guard Michaela Mabrey or sophomore guard Lindsay Allen, as was the case in the regional round.
Loyd was a unanimous selection for the AP All-American team, while Allen and Turner both received honorable mentions.
With a backcourt powered by Loyd and Allen and an inside game controlled by Turner and sophomore forward Taya Reimer, Notre Dame has the No. 5 offense in the NCAA, scoring 80.9 points per game.
If anything is certain about this year’s Final Four, it’s that the Maryland squad Notre Dame met in December’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge isn’t the same Terrapins team that had advanced to the tournament’s final weekend.
The Irish earned a dominating, 92-72 victory over Maryland on Dec. 3, which came on the heels of a Terrapins loss to Washington State four days before.
Since then, however, Maryland has won 28 straight games en route to capturing a Big Ten title and Spokane, Washington, regional crown in the NCAA tournament with a 58-48 win over Tennessee last Monday. It earned a 27-2 record in the regular season, including a perfect 18-0 in conference play.
Maryland had relied on former forward and three-time ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas to carry its load on offense and defense for the past four seasons.
After Thomas’ graduation, the Terrapins are led this year by sophomore guards Lexie Brown, a third-team AP All-American, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, an honorable mention AP All-American, along with redshirt senior guard Laurin Mincy.
Mincy’s 13.8 points per game are tops on the team, while Walker-Kimbrough (13.5) and Brown (13.4) are close behind to make up Maryland’s balanced offensive attack. Sophomore center Brionna Jones also averages double-digit points at 12.3 per game.
Jones leads the Terrapins on the boards with 9.0 rebounds per game and has recorded 14 double-doubles this season, three of those coming in the NCAA tournament. The team’s rebounding margin sits eighth in the nation, averaging 11.1 more rebounds per game than its opponents.
No. 1 overall seed Connecticut arrives in Tampa, Florida, seeking its third straight NCAA title and head coach Geno Auriemma’s 10th career championship, and the Huskies are heavy favorites to do just that.
The team leads the NCAA in both scoring offense and defense, with a scoring margin (41.9) not far off from the points it allows per game (48.2). In addition, the Huskies top the country in five other major statistical categories.
Powered by defending AP Player of the Year and Naismith Trophy winner junior forward Breanna Stewart, the Connecticut lineup features two other All-Americans in senior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and junior guard Moriah Jefferson and an honorable mention in sophomore forward Morgan Tuck.
In the Sweet 16, the Huskies topped fifth-seeded Texas, 105-54. It was the largest margin of victory in any NCAA regional semifinal game ever. However, just two days later, they struggled to separate themselves from seventh-seeded Dayton, which entered halftime up by one before falling back in the second half.
Connecticut’s lone loss this year came against Stanford back in November. The 88-86 defeat came in overtime and on the road. Since then, the Huskies have reeled off 35 straight wins.