WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR

Women’s Sports Report, NCAA Final Four, Luna Bar & USWNT

Michael Bari Show Daily

April 4th, 2019

What’s New:

  • The NWHL expects to have teams in Montreal and Toronto next season, commissioner Dani Rylan told ESPN. The news comes on the heels of the NWHL’s competitor, the CWHL, folding on Sunday morning. The plan will be for the NWHL to have seven teams next season — including the existing franchises in Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, Connecticut and Minnesota.
  • Penn State hired Carolyn Kieger as its women’s basketball coach on Wednesday after she led Marquette to three consecutive NCAA tournaments. Kieger, a 2006 Marquette graduate, was 99-64 in five seasons with the Golden Eagles. The team reached the round of 32 the past two seasons, falling 78-76 to Texas A&M this year and finishing the season 27-8. Marquette went 76-26 the past three years, winning two Big East regular-season championships and a Big East tournament title.
  • A survey across eight key markets around the world (U.S., U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia and New Zealand) found that 84% of sports fans are interested in women’s sports. Of those, 51% are male, which confirms that women’s sports engage a gender-balanced audience.

 

WOMEN’S SPORTS

Geno Auriemma joins SVP: Analyst: UConn Huskies vs Notre Dame | NCAA Women’s Championship | ESPN SC

Post Below From: Charlie Creme | ESPN.com

What to know for the 2019 Women’s Final Four

When: Friday
Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida
Matchups: Baylor-Oregon, 7 p.m. ET; Notre Dame-UConn, 9 p.m. ET
How to watch: ESPN2/ESPN App

Women’s Final Four community impact in Tampa, FL.

Baylor and Oregon have met three times, including in the NCAA tournament’s second round in 2005, when the Lady Bears won their first national championship. Notre Dame and UConn will meet for the 50th time, including their eighth in the Final Four. UConn leads the series 37-12, but Notre Dame is 4-3 against UConn at the Final Four.


Baylor Lady Bears

Been here before: Fourth Final Four, all under coach Kim Mulkey; national championships in 2005 and 2012.

Reason to be excited: Being back in the Final Four for the first time since the Lady Bears went 40-0 to win it all in 2012 is a good place to start, especially after four losses in the Elite Eight since that last appearance. Baylor was the best team in the country all season and actually looks to be peaking now, winning its four NCAA tournament games by an average of 38.3 points.

Reason to be concerned: The Lady Bears earned the easiest road to Tampa as the No. 1 overall seed, but the matchups were tailor-made to Baylor’s strengths. Oregon, particularly on offense, is not. The Ducks’ pick-and-roll, spread-the-floor approach is something the Lady Bears haven’t seen all season. Nobody in the Big 12 or any team Baylor has faced in the NCAA tournament has an elite point guard. Sabrina Ionescu is the best in the country.

The Lady Bears will win if …they stay the course. During Baylor’s 32-point regional final win, Mulkey was asked how her defense was able to control Iowa. Her response was simple: “We do what we do.” If Baylor can continue to control the paint with 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-4 Lauren Cox, get a solid floor game from Chloe Jackson, and get modest contributions from DiDi Richards and/or Juicy Landrum at both ends of the court, a third national championship is a strong possibility.

X factor: With length and bounce rarely seen in a perimeter player, the 6-1 Richards has been a defensive menace all season. In the NCAA tournament, she has decided to score, too. After averaging just 6.3 points during the season, Richards scored 25 and 16 points (her two highest totals of the season) in the two games in Greensboro, North Carolina. She also had 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 steals, to go with those 16 points in the Elite Eight. Even if she isn’t scoring, Richards might be the perfect kind of defender to disrupt the rhythm of Ionescu or limit the opportunities for Satou Sabally.

Stat to know: The Lady Bears rank first in the country in field goal percentage defense (31.4), blocked shots (260), assists (811) and rebound margin (plus-17.9). Heading into the regionals, Baylor also ranked third in the country in 3-point percentage at 38.5 percent. But only two teams — San Diego and Arkansas-Pine Bluff — attempted fewer shots from long range. The Lady Bears are 115 of 304 on 3s.


Oregon Ducks

Been here before: First Final Four; eliminated in the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons. Notched first win against a No. 1 seed to reach the national semifinals (had lost its previous two meetings against 1-seeds).

Reason to be excited: Kelly Graves. When Graves took over the Ducks program five years ago, good things began to happen nearly right away. In Year 2, they were in the WNIT semifinals, one win shy of the school record. Then came the recruitment of Sabrina Ionescu and two straight Elite Eight trips followed. Now Oregon is in the Final Four for the first time.

Reason to be concerned: 6-7 and 6-4. Those are the heights of Baylor’s Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. Oregon has faced size before, but none like this. The Ducks present some perimeter mismatches for the Lady Bears, but Oregon has no individual answers for both Brown and Cox.

The Ducks will win if … they hold their own on the glass. Much of Oregon’s offense is predicated on getting the ball and getting up the court quickly. That is going to require taking rebounds away from the best rebounding team in the country. The Ducks outrebounded taller Mississippi State, but Baylor presents a next-level challenge.

X factor: Ionescu. The nation’s best point guard is the Ducks’ engine. The spacing in the half court, the transition game, the ball movement, the open looks on the perimeter all start with Ionescu. Her confidence is contagious and stems from master-level basketball smarts. Look no further than the regional final against Mississippi State. When Ionescu is in rhythm, as she was in the most important fourth-quarter moments in the Elite Eight, Oregon is almost impossible to defend.

Stat to know: The Ducks are the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the country (41.7 percent) and bring four players — Erin Boley (43.5 percent), Ionescu (43.3 percent), Satou Sabally (41.1 percent) and Maite Cazorla (41.1 percent) — all shooting above 40 percent from the beyond the arc. Throw in Ruthy Hebard’s second-in-the-nation field goal percentage of 67.2, and it’s no wonder Oregon also leads the country in almost every offensive efficiency category.


Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Been here before: Defending NCAA champion is making its second consecutive Final Four appearance and ninth overall, all under coach Muffet McGraw; national championships in 2001 and 2018.

Reason to be excited: Experience. Notre Dame’s starting lineup is four seniors (Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner) and a junior (Jackie Young), all of whom could be playing their final games in an Irish uniform (Young is eligible for the WNBA draft but has not announced her plans). The desire to go out on top cannot be measured, but the confidence derived from winning the best Final Four in history a year ago can only help.

Reason to be concerned: Mabrey. Notre Dame prides itself on having five bona fide offensive threats. Right now, the Irish have four. Mabrey has hit a shooting slump at the worst possible time. She is 5-of-24 from the field and 2-of-15 from 3-point range in four NCAA tournament games, scoring a total of 12 points. Young scored 11 in a four-minute stretch in the second half against Stanford.

The Irish will win if … they get just enough stops. As explosive as the Notre Dame offense is, the defense doesn’t need to be great — it needs to be timely. A few stands in key moments are enough to allow the Irish to string together a few difference-making baskets. That’s what happened against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. An Ogunbowale steal here, a Mabrey defensive rebound there, Young getting good position on a drive and a tie score turns into an eight-point Irish lead and another victory.

X factor: Turner. When talking about Notre Dame’s defense, the conversation has to include Turner, the ACC’s three-time defensive player of the year. Her ability to block shots and keep them in play is an ignitor for the Irish transition game. More importantly, if Turner can make Napheesa Collier less effective around the rim, UConn just isn’t as good. The matchup between the Huskies’ best player and Notre Dame’s best defender will be a key.

Stat to know: Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the struggles of Mabrey, the program’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, but the Irish have also not shot well from distance. In its past three NCAA tournament games, Notre Dame has made just 9-of-33 (27.2 percent) after making nearly 37 percent of its 3-pointers during the regular season.


UConn Huskies

Been here before: NCAA-record (for men’s and women’s D-I basketball) 12th consecutive Final Four; the program’s 20th Final Four appearance is also the most all time in NCAA tournament history. The Huskies have won 11 NCAA titles, including an unprecedented four-peat from 2013 to 2016.

Reason to be excited: Notre Dame seized control of the rivalry just before the Huskies went on their historic 111-game winning streak, but UConn has now won eight of the past nine against the Irish. That includes an 18-point win earlier this season. But that one loss was the heartbreaker in last year’s Final Four. This is the chance for the UConn veterans to erase that bad memory.

Reason to be concerned: The margin for error has gotten increasingly smaller for the Huskies since their last national championship in 2016. Weaknesses have been exposed at times this season. UConn lacks depth both in numbers and in reliability after Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Crystal Dangerfield. The Huskies can be had on the boards. They aren’t as good defensively as they have been.

The Huskies will win if … they make shots. Geno Auriemma is masterful in his ability to hide weaknesses and play to his team’s strengths. But even he has admitted that when this UConn team shoots well, it is really good. If the Huskies don’t, they can struggle. UConn shot 29.4 percent and 38 percent in the two losses this season to Baylor and Louisville, respectively. In their two biggest wins, over Notre Dame and in the regional final rematch against the Cardinals, the Huskies were 45.3 percent and 43.1 percent from the field. In Sunday’s win over Louisville, they also made 14-of-26 3-pointers.

X factor: Freshman Christyn Williams scored 28 points in the first meeting with Notre Dame and then didn’t have a game nearly that impactful until Sunday’s 16-point, 7-rebound, 3-assist performance against Louisville. Megan Walker, who has had an up-and-down sophomore season, made her first four 3-pointers in the regional final, helping establish a late first-quarter lead that UConn never gave up. If those two are playing at that kind of level, the Huskies probably have the best starting five in the Final Four.

Stat to know: UConn gave up 25 offensive rebounds to Buffalo in the second round and 19 to UCLA in the regional semifinals, but cut that number to 12 against Louisville. That was also with the Cardinals missing 40 shots. UConn had a hole and plugged it. Notre Dame is fifth in the country in offensive rebound rate but didn’t do any damage there against UConn in December, with only 11 offensive boards.

Big Questions

Can Ionescu record a triple-double in the Final Four?

If it is going to happen for the first time in Women’s Final Four history, it would only be appropriate that the all-time leader in NCAA triple-doubles for men and women be the one to do it.

Ionescu recorded her 18th career triple-double in the second round against Indiana, joining Stanford’s Nicole Powell as the only players to have two triple-doubles in NCAA tournament play. Breaking that tie in a Final Four would be magical, or perhaps, Magic-like.

Through four NCAA tournament games, Ionescu’s performance is strikingly similar to what Magic Johnson did in 1979 for Michigan State through four games. Of course, one game later Johnson put up 24 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists as the Spartans won their first national championship.

An Ionescu triple-double or two would go a long way to doing the same for the Ducks.

How will Baylor choose to defend Oregon?

A zone really isn’t an option against the best 3-point shooting team in the country — and that really isn’t Baylor’s preferred defense, anyway — but the Ducks provide an interesting challenge.

Richards can match up with Ionescu, Jackson could guard Cazorla, and Brown on Hebard is a great individual matchup.

But can Cox chase the 6-2 Boley out to the perimeter where she likes to set up? Do Richards and/or the 5-8 Landrum have enough size to contain Sabally? Is 6-2 freshman NaLyssa Smith ready to contribute more defensively at the most important time of the year?

Baylor’s defensive game plan might be the most intriguing part of the matchup in the game’s early stages.

Can Arike Ogunbowale be a Final Four hero again?

Logic would say nothing could possibly top last year’s Final Four. Two overtime games. A national championship decided at the buzzer. Sports don’t get better than that. Or can they?

The player that provided those thrills is back, with even more moxie and shot-seeking ability. With four heavyweights once again reaching the last weekend, close games should be in order. And who has the pedigree of being better in close game, clutch moments than Ogunbowale?

Another winning shot or two would seem to defy the odds, but the chance to go from hero to legend is Ogunbowale’s alone.

Is Katie Lou Samuelson fully healed from back spasms?

Samuelson looked healthy and on a mission in the regional final win over Louisville with 29 points and seven 3-pointers, but she didn’t look like herself in the three previous NCAA tournament games.

UConn’s tournament opener against Towson marked her first game back after missing four because of a back injury suffered against Houston in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

Perhaps Sunday’s performance means she has returned to full health. But something as fickle as back spasms could also return at any time with the wrong fall or bump if not completely mended. UConn can’t win a 12th championship without a healthy Samuelson.

Can Satou Sabally continue her ascent to stardom?

Sabally was the choice as a breakout star at the beginning of the tournament, but she has exceeded that already. She is Oregon’s second-leading scorer and has upped that average from 16.3 points in the regular season to 19.0 points in the tournament.

At 6-4 with deep shooting range, Sabally is a scouting nightmare with a skill set for which no amount of film study can provide an answer. Where she takes her game next could determine Oregon’s fate in Tampa.

What does the BPI predict?

According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, Baylor is the favorite to win the title, thanks to its easier route to the championship game.

Chance to win the NCAA championship:

  • Baylor: 31 percent
  • UConn: 29 percent
  • Notre Dame: 28 percent
  • Oregon: 12 percent

According to the BPI:

  • Baylor has a 64 percent chance to beat Oregon on Friday
  • UConn has a 51 percent chance to beat Notre Dame on Friday

However, Baylor would be a virtual coin flip in the championship against either UConn or Notre Dame, and Oregon would have about a 1-in-3 chance to upset either UConn or Notre Dame.

BPI projections for potential championship game matchups:

  • Notre Dame (52 percent) vs. Baylor
  • UConn (53 percent) vs. Baylor
  • Notre Dame (66 percent) vs. Oregon
  • UConn (67 percent) vs. Oregon

Westgate odds

Women’s Final Four odds at Westgate:

  • Baylor: minus-125
  • Notre Dame: plus-250
  • UConn: 4-1
  • Oregon: 12-1

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.

Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe

Photo: David Rosenblum | Icon Sportswire

LUNA Bar has agreed to fund the pay gap between the U.S. men’s and women’s World Cup roster bonuses. USWNT forward Alex Morgan told espnW last week during a media day in Los Angeles organized by LUNA Bar. “But there isn’t one. They want to close the gap. They want to be on the forefront of this movement.”

 

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