MINNEAPOLIS — After five wild rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the field of 68 teams is down to its final four. And for as many dramatic upsets as there were along the way, all the national semifinalists are from the cream of the crop.
Friday’s first game is a clash of No. 1 seeds: Louisville vs. South Carolina, the nation’s top-ranked team all season. (7 p.m., ESPN). The nightcap will be even bigger, as reigning national champion Stanford faces the biggest powerhouse of all, Connecticut (9:30 p.m., ESPN).
Here’s a look at a star player from each team to know about. Along with their key stats and background information, The Inquirer spoke with a famous alumna of each team to get their view of their schools’ current stars.
Louisville: Hailey Van Lith
Bio: Sophomore guard, 5-foot-7, from Wenatchee, Wash.
Key stats this season: 14.5 points per game, 36.4% three-point shooting, 3.4 rebounds per game, 2.2 assists per game, 1.2 steals per game
What to know: The Cardinals’ top scorer this season has taken her game to an even higher level in March, scoring 20 or more points in each of her NCAA games. In the summer of 2019, heading into her senior year of high school, she became friends with Kobe Bryant. He gave her advice on growing her game, and Van Lith became close with Bryant’s daughter Gianna.
When Van Lith led the Cardinals over Michigan in the regional final, ESPN asked her what she thought Kobe would say, and she answered: “He would say, ‘Go [expletive] win this [expletive] Hailey!’ That’s what he would say. We’re not done. That’s what he would say right there.”
Angel McCoughtry of the Minnesota Lynx says: “I see a kid who, number one, is in her prime, but she’s so mature. She’s only a sophomore — I keep thinking she’s a senior! That’s how mature she is.
“I think that she’s fearless. I think that she’s only going to get better. She’s getting that thing, you know, special players have that thing in them that’s like a dog that comes out. And I can see it growing and it’s coming out.”
“Watching her play these last few games, I saw the dog, and she was willing her team. I love what she said after the [regional] final — she said, we’re not finished. You know, she was celebrating her moment, but she still made that point, ‘We’re not done.’ And that’s something Kobe would say.”
Bio: Junior forward, 6-foot-5, from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Stats this season: 16.8 points per game, 54.2% field goal shooting, 12.2 rebounds per game, 2.5 blocks per game, 1.9 assists per game, 1.3 steals per game — and just 1.4 fouls per game.
What to know: The consensus national player of the year, she swept all four of this season’s most outstanding player awards the Naismith, Associated Press, Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and U.S. Basketball Writers Association honors. She also won the Naismith’s top defensive player award.
This is her second straight season as a unanimous first-team All-American, and as a freshman she won national freshman of the year honors from the WBCA and USBWA.
A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces says: “Oh, man, I see a dominant big that can control her environment and control what she’s around. She handles double-teams, triple-teams, probably the best that I’ve seen this year. She’s just a very dominant big. She’s very demanding in what she wants and she has teammates that [are] going to find and execute it for her.”
Stanford: Haley Jones
Bio: Junior guard, 6-foot-1, from Santa Cruz, Calif.
Key stats this season: 12.9 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game, 1.1 blocks per game
What to know: Is it possible that the Cardinal are underrated? That’s what happens when South Carolina is also in the Final Four spotlight, perhaps spiced up by a little East Coast media bias. (Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer had a little fun with that on Thursday.)
The Most Outstanding Player of last year’s NCAA Tournament has had another terrific season. Playing alongside another big-time scorer in Lexie Hull, Jones registered double-doubles in points and rebounds in this year’s regional semifinal and final.
Erica McCall of the Washington Mystics says: “When I see Haley Jones play I see a fearless, poise leader. She does whatever the team needs her to do. Haley is someone I wished I could have played with at the collegiate level.”
And Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks says: “Watching Haley is witnessing Stanford’s evolution and sustained legacy. Along the years, even before my time playing, many knew what playing against us would yield: triangle motion and fundamental basketball.”
“During my time and thereafter, Stanford women’s basketball has perfectly displayed that laying a foundation from which different players can complement such legacy with the their own style is what maintains the winning culture we all know and love. And Haley embodies just that.”
Connecticut: Paige Bueckers
Bio: Sophomore guard, 5-foot-11, from Hopkins, Minn. (about 10 miles southwest of Minneapolis)
Key stats this season: 14.7 points per game, 55.1% field goal shooting, 4.0 assists per game, 3.9 rebounds per game, 1.5 steals per game
What to know: She’s the biggest star in women’s college basketball, and one of the biggest names in college basketball, period. But she’s had a difficult season, missing 19 games from early December to late February because of a knee injury. She isn’t at full strength yet, but she went off in the epic double-overtime win over N.C. State in the regional final: 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting, and six rebounds.
As Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said this week, “Some people at 90% are better than some people at 110%.” And as Bueckers told ESPN after that game, “Two days ago, I said win or go home — but we won, and I’m still going home!”
Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm says: “I see someone who’s just a fearless competitor. She’s someone who is obviously clutch. She is learning as she goes, because last year was her freshman year, still COVID things going on.”
“Now coming back after an injury, you’re still finding your footing. And you could see in the last game, towards the end of the game and then into overtime, you were like ‘Oh, this is Paige.’ So I think that she’s in a great place. Momentum is definitely on her side to continue to lead UConn. And it’s just crazy that she’s only a sophomore, and everything that she’s doing.”