Women's College Basketball

NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Might Be One for the Ages


UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers celebrataes after making a clutch shot during Saturday night’s Sweet Sixteen game against the Indiana Hoosiers. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

MINNEAPOLIS – The No. 2 seed UConn Huskies will face the No. 1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks for the right to be crowned the national champions of Women’s college basketball at Target Center tonight. Both teams are led by experienced coaches who have been in championship games before and will have their teams ready to do battle when the game tips off at 7 p.m. CT.

Since 1985, UConn has been led by Geno Auriemma, an eight-time Naismith Coach of the Year whose teams have won 11 NCAA championships under his tutelage. Auriemma has a coaching record of 1149–149 (.885) overall and 131–21 in NCAA tournament play.

Facing him will be Dawn Staley, who was hired by South Carolina in 2008 after spending the previous eight seasons with the Temple Owls. The first person who win the Naismith Award as both a player (1991, 1992) and a coach (2020, 2022), Staley has led her teams to the Final Four on three previous occasions including winning the national championship in 2017. Her record is 537–185 (.744) in regular season play.

“I don’t think I’ve won one National Championship, and I don’t think Dawn is going to win any either. I think her team has a great chance to win a National Championship. I think my team has a chance to win a National Championship,” said Auriemma. “Once this game starts, once you get to tip-off, you kind of relinquish about 80 percent of the control to the players, and they now have the ability to win it or they don’t. You can coach the best game of your life and lose. You can make the most mistakes you’ve ever made coaching a game, and your team will find a way to win. I’ve been in this situation a lot against a lot of coaches, and I’ve taken the same approach with every single one. It’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s always — it’s UConn versus South Carolina.”

“I think any time that you’re in this position to compete for a National Championship, it’s a pretty big deal. And Geno has had a legendary career. He has helped our game grow. Whether people believe that or not, he has helped our game grow tremendously. I think a lot of what we’re able to do and get is off the backs of their success,” said Staley. “I think the people up at UConn treat their women’s basketball team as a sport. They’re forced to because of all the winning and all the success, but you could take a page out of their book. If you invest in it, you could end up having similar success.”

Both teams played in the Final Four last season in San Antonio, Texas and fell short. UConn lost to Arizona in the semifinal round and South Carolina lost in the championship game to Stanford. Friday night’s games were expressed as “getting over the hump” moments by players on both teams.

South Carolina Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston, the AP National Player of the Year, scored 23 points and grabbed 18 rebounds during Friday night’s NCAA Women’s Final Four semifinal win over the Louisville Cardinals at Target Center in Minneapolis. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine.

“I think this is — I’m like super excited. Coming in freshman year, got cut short; last year Final Four ending wasn’t the way we want it to. But now looking at this third year where we have a chance at a National Championship, so I’m excited to give it everything I got,” said Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston. “You can get overwhelmed whether you want to believe it or not if you’re thinking, oh, I’m playing UConn, playing against this, this. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself, so it’s like, no, we’re playing a National Championship game tomorrow, and so I’m just excited for that.”

“Obviously when I was a little kid, I was at the gym, at the park, I dreamt of these moments being able to play in March Madness, playing in the Final Four, the national championship game,” said UConn guard Paige Bueckers, a Minnesota-native. “To do it ten minutes way from where I live, it’s super crazy to me, still hasn’t hit me yet.”

Bueckers and Boston have both won the AP Player of the Year Award and point back to their coaches as being keys to their success.

“After we played Buffalo the night in the Bahamas, Coach Staley was like, ‘You’re not the being dominant. This is not the Aliyah Boston that we’re expecting, we’re looking for,’” said Boston. “It just flipped a switch. I’m glad she said something because it got me upset. I’m was like, ‘I’m doing fine, like
I’m playing good.’ That’s what happening in my head. But she was able to point it out, and the next game I just came out and I was like, you know what? I’m not going to be denied. I’m going go crash the boards. I’m going to do what my team needs me to do. It’s helped us out every single game, and so I’m just going to continue to do that for one more.”

“The Bahamas game was eons ago. What did we take it from it?” said Staley. “We’re going to watch it a little bit because I liked how we were defending, and we can compare what it looks like from back in November to what it looks like now. I think we’ve gotten better, but we did a pretty good job in the Bahamas. We’ll look at it just probably to get our players’ juices flowing a little bit to see this is what we did.”

Regarding Auriemma, Bueckers said, “He’s been a huge impact on me with the little details of the game. He’s taught me how to move without the ball and make better reads on offense and defense. He’s really taught me to be a leader and he knows that I see the game sort of different than other people and I have a high IQ and he wants me to share with my teammates. He wants me to lead by example.”

As leaders, both Bueckers and Boston rely heavily on their faith to carry them through.

“No weapon formed against me shall prosper because I feel like in this world, no matter what’s happening, there might be people who are against you even if they’re in your face saying congratulations,” said Boston. “Just making sure that I pray that over myself that no weapon formed against me shall prosper. It just keeps me calm because I know that God is protecting me and He’s camping his angels around me every single day no matter what I’m doing.”

Bueckers said, “Just what God’s done for my life, that’s shaped a lot about who I am and what I do. God has blessed me so much and given me so much, it’s only right to spread that light on him and give him the glory and make sure that everybody else around me and anything that I’m given. I want to give back as well. I think that shapes who I am and my parents as well, keeping me humble and grounded and show me what a great person is first and then basketball comes second.”

Success breeds success, and both teams have found that in recent years. Target Center will be filled with fans from their home states who have traveled to cheer their respective team on, just as they were on Friday night.

Kenny and Jeri Cohen traveled from Brooklyn, New York to Minneapolis to cheer on UConn in the Final Four. On Friday night, they had seats in the rafters, the last row in Section 228.

A UConn fan holds up a sign during the Regional matchup against the N.C. State Wolfpack on March 28, 2022 at Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Instead of sitting during the second half, Jeri stood against a steel girder. Kenny remained seated but mixed his excitement by standing and high-fiving Jeri before taking his seat again. Together the experienced both the highs and lows of attending a crucial tournament matchup in person. When the final buzzer sounded and UConn won, Kenny let out an exuberant scream of joy. They have been following the Huskies for approximately 15 years.

“We have no real connection to UConn,” said Kenny Cohen. “We love women’s basketball. Our daughter played and we love their style of basketball. That’s what attracted us to them. We just became huge fans.”

Jeri Cohen said, “I actually think the biggest thing is that they made it to the Final Four. That’s a huge achievement, even moreso than the final game. But we’re really happy that this year, UConn made it considering all of the injuries that they’ve had.”

When asked about their expectations for the championship game, Jeri said, “I think [UConn’s] going to beat them. I just think the momentum is with them. I just feel it.”

For Kenny, it was even more basic. “To win. That’s our expectation. Win… because losing sucks,” he said with a laugh.

Somewhere inside Target Center was a South Carolina Gamecocks fan who, like the coaches and players from both teams, would agree with him.

Tonight’s NCAA Women’s basketball national championship might be one for the ages with two evenly matched teams, two faith-based AP players of the year, two experienced coaches, traveling with two excited fan bases. Tip off starts at 7 p.m. CT at Target Center in Minneapolis.

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