By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Writer
Dawn Staley summed it up perfectly:
The South Carolina coach tweeted that somewhere between the first and second overtime of UConn’s 91-87 win over NC State on Monday. It was a dramatic Elite Eight showdown of epic proportions that sent the Huskies to their 14th straight Final Four.
And now the Final Four stage is set: UConn will play Stanford; South Carolina will play Louisville.
Here’s a breakdown of what happened over the weekend in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and what we can look forward to next weekend in Minneapolis.
Best game: UConn 91, NC State 87. This was an instant classic and the best game of March — in the men’s or women’s tournament. No. 2 seed Connecticut held off No. 1 NC State’s second-half comeback for a 91-87 win in double overtime. It was the first time in women’s tournament history that an Elite Eight game went into double overtime, and now the Huskies are heading to the program’s 14th straight Final Four. They’ll play No. 1 Stanford on Friday.
Sophomore Paige Bueckers, who missed 19 games this season after undergoing knee surgery in December, looked like her old self. She was clutch, scoring 27 points, 15 of them in overtime. Three other UConn players scored 10 or more points.
The Huskies led by as many as 10 points, but NC State turned the game into a back-and-forth affair in the second half. The game had 26 lead changes and 18 ties. It was tied 61-61 at the end of regulation when NC State guard Kay Crutchfield missed a potential game-winning 3 at the buzzer.
Drama continued into the first extra period. The Huskies led by three when Wolfpack junior Jakia Brown-Turner, who scored 20 points, hit a 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds left to force a historic second overtime. Ultimately, UConn outscored NC State 14-10 in the final five minutes to clinch the win.
Best individual performance: Lexie Hull, Stanford. Hull scored 20 points in her hometown of Spokane, Washington, and led the reigning champion Cardinal to a 59-50 win over Texas in the Elite Eight. When the Longhorns cut the Cardinal’s lead to two late in the fourth quarter, Hull was fouled and converted the three-point play. From then on, Stanford was in control. Hull’s twin sister, Lacie, added five rebounds and four assists. They were the last two Cardinal players to cut down the nets in front of a proud, Stanford-heavy crowd.
Best interview/soundbite: This wasn’t so much an interview or soundbite — it was better. After beating Texas in the Elite Eight, Stanford players cut down the nets and then celebrated in the most hilarious and unpredictable way: by doing the Electric Slide.
The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings reported that players had recently taught three-time national championship-winning coach Tara VanDerveer the dance and wanted to show off their moves to celebrate reaching another Final Four.
Best storyline: Paige Bueckers is going home to Minneapolis to play in the Final Four. During the UConn-NC State broadcast, ESPN’s Holly Rowe said that back at the 2019 Final Four, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma told her that he had found the next Diana Taurasi. He was talking about the nation’s then-No. 1 recruit, Paige Bueckers. Rowe admitted that she was surprised by Auriemma’s comparison at the time.
Fast-forward to now, and Bueckers, who had surgery on her left knee three months ago, led her team with 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting in one of the greatest Elite Eight games ever. The cherry on top is that now she gets to play in a Final Four in her hometown.
“Thank God Paige came back,” Auriemma said after the game. “She just gives everybody so much confidence.”
Best play: With 16 seconds left in their Sweet 16 matchup, NC State’s Raina Perez swiped the ball from Notre Dame guard Dara Mabrey near midcourt and raced down the court to hit a layup that put her team up by one. The Fighting Irish, a No. 5 seed, led most of the game, including a 38-30 halftime edge, but didn’t score a point in the final 1:45. Perez followed her clutch steal by knocking down a pair of free throws to widen the lead to 66-63 and guarantee the Wolfpack a spot in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1998.
Best moment: After UConn beat NC State in the Elite Eight, Auriemma was emotional in his postgame interview. This will be his team’s 14th straight trip to the Final Four, a historic accomplishment in the sport, though the Huskies have not won a national title since 2016, Breanna Stewart’s senior year.
“I think when you’re younger, you think, ‘I’ve got a million of these left in me,’” the 68-year-old Auriemma said. “You get to a certain age and go, ‘I don’t know how many of these I have left.’
“You don’t know how many opportunities you’ll get in this game. It means more. Because each time you do it, there’s a new set of kids who have never been here. They came to Connecticut for a chance to play in a Final Four. It’s an overwhelming responsibility to give them a chance. And we did.”
Biggest surprise: No. 3 seed Michigan reached its first Elite Eight in program history. In the matchup against No. 1 Louisville, Wolverines coach Kim Barnes Arico had a starting lineup without a single player who was a high school McDonald’s All-American. The Cardinals had four in their 62-50 win Monday, including guard Hailey Van Lith, who scored a game-high 22 points.
While this wasn’t the outcome the Wolverines wanted, they’ve come a long way from a 70-48 loss to Louisville earlier this season. Michigan will have to wait at least another season to reach its first Final Four, but the program clearly has a bright future if it can develop more competitive, hard-working players like senior Naz Hillmon, who became the first player in Michigan history to be named first-team All-American. She averaged 21 points and 9.4 rebounds this season and, with 18 points and 11 rebounds against Louisville, posted her fourth NCAA Tournament double-double.
Best coaching job: You have to be impressed by what Vic Schaefer has done at Texas so far. Schaefer, who coached Mississippi State in two Final Fours, has taken the Longhorns to back-to-back Elite Eights in his first two seasons.
His team, led by freshman-who-looks-like-a-senior Rori Harmon, nearly beat reigning national champion Stanford in the Elite Eight. If only it hadn’t been for those pesky free throws down the stretch. On the bright side for this program, Schaefer has a young, talented and physical team that will be hungry for more next season.
Biggest disappointment: Notre Dame could have beaten NC State and made it to the Final Four. The Fighting Irish outplayed their ACC foes all game but couldn’t score in the final two minutes, and a critical turnover late ultimately kept them from advancing to the next round.
On a positive note, after missing the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 1995, Niele Ivey took her alma mater to the Sweet 16 in just her second year as its head coach. It just seems like a matter of time until the Irish return to the Final Four stage, especially with young talent such as Olivia Miles on the roster. The freshman guard averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists in her first NCAA Tournament.
Final Four preview/championship pick: South Carolina is going back to the Final Four for its fourth appearance since 2015. The Gamecocks, led by National Player of the Year front-runner Aliyah Boston, hope to win their second national championship under coach Dawn Staley since 2017.
While South Carolina has been one of the most dominant programs in the country under Staley, everybody loves a redemption story, and for this team, that means winning a title after losing to Stanford in last season’s semifinal. South Carolina is leaning into the narrative of “unfinished business,” which resonates particularly well with Boston, given that she missed a shot at the buzzer against the Cardinal last year that would have put her team in the championship game.
Now, Boston and her team will get another shot before she likely becomes a top WNBA draft pick. Boston, who has posted a double-double in every NCAA Tournament game this year except one, will be ready for the moment and will lead the Gamecocks to a title.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” will be published this spring marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
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