Top overall seed South Carolina or perennial favorite Connecticut will take home the 2022 N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball championship on Sunday. This outcome seemed unlikely after the bracket was revealed three weeks ago, but only because there was so much confidence in Stanford, the reigning national champion and one of the top teams in the field.
But a South Carolina-UConn showdown is fitting considering expectations at the beginning of the season. A South Carolina team stacked with top recruits that was denied a second trip to the championship game by a heartbreaking 1-point loss in the 2021 Final Four seemed like the perfect foil for a UConn team that has Paige Bueckers, the youngest player to earn the women’s Naismith Trophy, and was overdue for a trip to the biggest game of the year by its own dynastic standards.
The two teams will face off for the 12th time on Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN, playing in the same Target Center arena in Minneapolis where UConn won its first title back in 1995. Here are some players and trends to look out for as you watch.
UConn has had an uncharacteristic season in several ways.
Connecticut was not given a No. 1 seed in this tournament for good reason. The team was shaken by a midseason knee injury for Bueckers, which led to a lengthy absence and compounded the impact of a few uncharacteristic early season UConn losses. The Huskies who had already proved beatable looked unsteady for much of her absence — and Bueckers only started performing close to that player of the year peak a few games into the N.C.A.A. tournament.
But after battling through some incredibly close games in the tournament, UConn is back in the title game for the 12th time, looking to extend its undefeated streak in championship matchups.
South Carolina beat UConn in November.
The scariest thing for the Huskies going into Sunday’s game is likely that South Carolina already had one decisive 73-57 victory over them earlier this year — a victory that came weeks before Bueckers was hurt.
It was just the second time that the Gamecocks have beaten UConn in program history, with the Huskies owning the series 9-2.
The Gamecocks will have film to study before the championship, but their defense has only gotten more seasoned since they pulled off that comeback win back in November.
The teams were supposed to meet again in January, but South Carolina canceled the game because it needed to make up a Southeastern Conference game that had been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa may need an even bigger game than she had Friday.
This is 6-foot-5 senior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s fourth Final Four, but it will be her first championship game.
Her performance on Friday night was integral to the Huskies’ win over Stanford, as she was able to stay in the game despite foul trouble and get 5 crucial points down the stretch.
She’ll have to replicate and probably even improve that performance against Aliyah Boston, who is as tall as Nelson-Ododa is, but stronger — and has been playing her best basketball in the Gamecocks’ past two tournament games.
Adding to Nelson-Ododa’s importance is the Huskies’ lack of depth in the post. Forward Dorka Juhász will be out after suffering a broken wrist in the round of 8, and so it’s even more crucial that Nelson-Ododa play cleanly so she can remain on the court to fight a South Carolina team that has plenty of long players ready to come off the bench and help Boston.
Bueckers was UConn’s leading scorer against the Cardinal, but the team’s box score was well-rounded, with contributions on both ends of the floor from every player who contributed significant minutes. South Carolina’s defense looked nearly impenetrable against Louisville, a team that came into the Final Four priding itself on toughness, offering further evidence that the Huskies will need significant contributions from players like Evina Westbrook, who hit three timely 3-point shots in Friday’s game to helped get the Huskies to this point.
South Carolina, even with all its accomplishments, gets a new challenge.
The Gamecocks, and specifically Coach Dawn Staley, enter this game with something to prove despite being the favorite.
In its only postseason game against UConn, a 2018 round of 8 game, South Carolina entered as the reigning champion — a champion that had not needed to beat UConn for its national title. And the Huskies romped past the Gamecocks, 94-65.
Since then, Staley has recruited as well as or better than UConn Coach Geno Auriemma, has come close to matching his salary, and has made her team a consistent threat for a deep run in the tournament.
She has not returned to the title game until now.
If she can win the Gamecocks their second championship, the program’s status as a powerhouse will be confirmed; if they lose, it might be seen as evidence that UConn’s dominance persists in spite of all the growth that has happened around the sport.
Can South Carolina score enough?
South Carolina knows the key to its game is a suffocating defense. The question is whether its guards, who underperformed in some of the early rounds, can come up with enough points to stay ahead of the Huskies.
Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke sank crucial 3-point shots against Louisville, but the Huskies held Stanford — typically a strong team from behind the arc — to just four triples in the semifinal. The Gamecocks guards will have to get creative to supplement Aliyah Boston’s consistent and prolific scoring.
Aliyah Boston will of course be a focal point.
Boston won this year’s Naismith Trophy earlier this week, and that means that this year’s and last year’s (Bueckers) best college basketball players will compete for the game’s most important prize.
Boston, a 6-foot-5 forward, has played remarkably over the past two games, padding the box score but more crucially playing with poise and control. She has avoided fouling out of frustration and found ways to make teams pay for double- and triple-teaming her.
She will need to summon that strength and patience one more time this season if the Gamecocks are to beat the Huskies.
If the Final Four games are any indication, this championship game will be a physical one. South Carolina hasn’t been particularly effective from the free throw line this season, making just 67.7 percent of its shots. But the Gamecocks made a higher percentage of their chances against Louisville, mostly thanks to Boston’s impressive consistency. In what looks to be a tightly fought matchup, making the most of those opportunities will be important.